by Deborah Solomon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pages, $28
The main lines of Rockwells life are well known. He was born in 1894 in New York. By his teens he was well embarked on his career as an illustrator. He married three times, and had three sons (all with his second wife, Mary). He died in 1978, as probably the best-loved American painter ever. And the prices for his paintings are now putting him in some pretty extraordinary company, sales-wise. On December 4, his famous painting Saying Grace sold for $46 million: the highest amount ever paid at auction for an artwork by an American. Yes, hes beloved.
In her new biography, however, Deborah Solomon presents a Rockwell we might not be inclined to love so much. Her most shocking claim is that he was sexually attracted to young boys. Almost equally shocking, but more subtle, is her suggestion that Rockwells self-absorption had a body counthis behavior led directly or indirectly to at least three ugly deaths.
There is no reason to go along with Solomon about these things. As Ill show, her argumentssuch as they areare deeply flawed, and she has a pronounced tendency to either distort or ignore evidence to the contrary of her claims. As her interpretation of Rockwell himself is irremediably flawed, so is her interpretation of his art. Hers is a book without merit.
Solomon admits that theres no evidence Rockwell ever actually molested any children. For example: there is nothing to suggest that Rockwells love of boys ever spilled over into inappropriate touching. (94) And again: Once again we are made to wonder whether Rockwells complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses. But an impulse is not a crime. There is no evidence that he acted on his impulses or behaved in a way that was inappropriate for its time. (318)
So Solomon says, twice, that there is no evidence that Rockwell acted on any pedophilic impulses. The problem is that there is no evidence that Rockwell ever had any pedophilic impulses. Throughout the book, there are many insinuations and suggestions that Rockwell had pedophilic impulses. These two passages, however, make the charge explicit. Where does this pedophilia charge come from? Its not easy to say. Solomon paints a picture of Rockwells life and character such that we are supposed to be able to see the pedophilia emerge. Its not a deductive case, built on straightforward argument, its an impressionistic one, of the sort that biographers must so often build. Despite this difficulty, I can at least take on the bits of Solomons case that are most argument-like. Her evidence for Rockwells pedophilia consists of three intertwined claims: First, he paints a lot of boys. Second, he forms strong relationships with some of the boys who serve as models for these paintings. Third, some of these paintings are sexually suggestive. Solomon thinks that pedophilia serves as the best unifying explanation for these claims. I doubt even that, but even if it were the case, there are problems with all three.
Its true that Rockwell painted a lot of boys. His career as an illustrator began when, at age 16, he became the art editor for Boys Life . He honed his skills and sensibilities throughout his late teens and early twenties painting for that magazine and other juvenile magazines, mostly catering to boys. It makes perfect sense that hed develop a particular capacity for painting boys. People liked his paintings of kids. He sold a couple such paintings to the Saturday Evening Post as his first covers for them. His friends, especially his studio-mate and sort-of mentor Clyde Forsyth, urged him to stick with painting boys, since he was so good at it. (Rockwell himself felt these kid pictures were a bit of a bore, and wanted to do other things. He had to be pushed to stick with them.) Solomon adds that Rockwell painted the boys lovingly and well, while his paintings of girls were not nearly so good. (94) She doesnt give any specific examples, and I am not sure I agree. But even if the point were true, it is fully explained in virtue of boys being his thing. Many painters have specialties. Rockwells own grandfather, as Solomon tells us, had a thing for painting birds. I doubt he was sexually attracted to them (at any rate, theres no evidence he acted on his impulses to bestiality). He just found his niche painting them. So with the early Rockwell and boys.
Rockwell did indeed form friendships with many of his boy models, including young Billy Paine. (Im going to follow the custom of spelling it this way: Solomon spells it Payne, and shes probably correct to do so. Its nice that shes correct about something, and Id like to leave her that victory.) Paine was a favorite model of Rockwells for a few years, but as he got older, Rockwell used him less. After all, Rockwells specialty was boys, not young men. Paine reacted to this with jealousybeating up one of the boys who modeled for Rockwell later. This is intelligible without any insinuations that Paine had any sexual interest in Rockwell. More to the point, Paines jealousy is totally irrelevant to the question of Rockwells feelings. Rockwells friendships had a strong savor of business about them: He was interested in people who were connected in some way to art. Once Paine had outgrown his usefulness as a model, Rockwell had little interest in him, and the friendship ended.
Solomons belief that Rockwells painting contains sexually suggestive scenes is even harder to credit. Solomon focuses on two of Rockwells most famous scenes. (317-320) First, the picture of the runaway kid and the cop in the diner. ( Post cover for March 15, 1958.) Second, the picture of the boy in the doctors office, standing on a chair, lowering his pants as he prepares for a shot. ( Post cover for September 20, 1958.) Sexual? I dont see it. These pictures are sexual only if everything is sexual. Admittedly, Im only asserting that the paintings arent sexual, and thats far from compelling. But, then Solomon only asserts that they are sexual. Our claims are on even footing. But, as Ill demonstrate, Solomon has a habit of twisting Rockwells paintings to fit her agenda, and that kind of twisting is all there is to this pair of interpretations, too.
So Solomons evidence for Rockwells supposed pedophilic impulses adds up to naught. But theres a larger problem with her case than that. She consistently leaves out facts that run contrary to her story. For example, Rockwell tells a story about two of his young models: Billy Paine, and Paines friend Eddie Carson. The boys, hanging around in Rockwells studio while he worked, would wait for a pedestrian to come past the open window, and then call out Oh, Mr. Rockwell, dont. Please. Oh, Mr. Rockwell, we didnt know you were that kind of man. The pedestrian, naturally, would stop and come back towards the open window, but the boys always ruined their own game at this point by breaking into shouts of laughter. To my mind, this story persuasively undermines the idea that Rockwell had pedophilic impulses. It strikes me as a near psychological impossibility that a pedophile (active or repressed) would tell this story on himself. It would hit too close to home. Maybe Im wrong about that. If so, Id be interested to hear alternative interpretations. We get no such thing from Solomon.
There are other such problems. I said above, for example, that Solomons case for Rockwells pedophilia rested in part on his strong relationships with his boy models. And I argued that this was hardly evidence for pedophilia. But theres more that can be said. Rockwell had strong relationships with many of his models, only some of whom were boys. One of his most prolific models was James K. Van Brunt, an elderly man with an enormous mustache. Van Brunts fabulous face showed up in so many Rockwell illustrations for a time, that Rockwell was forbidden by the editor of the Post to use him anymore. Rockwell paid Van Brunt ten dollars to shave off his mustache, hence eliminating his most distinguishing feature, and allowing Rockwell to continue to employ him. Solomon doesnt tell us this story. It doesnt quite fit into the picture she wishes to paint.
Sometimes, I just dont know what to make of things Solomon says. She seems to find it ironic that Rockwell, despite his long relationship with the Boy Scouts, never served as a scout leader (nor did his sons participate in scouting). This may be evidence of his inadequacies as a father, and Solomon takes pains to press that inadequacy. But imagine what a biographer intent on seeing pedophilic urges everywhere in Rockwells life would have made of it if Rockwell had been a Boy Scout leader! The proper way to see his failure to serve as a leader is that scouting has nothing to do with art, and as such wasnt interesting to him. For Rockwell, it was all about the art.
More than once, Solomon describes paintings wrongly. I dont mean that her interpretations are wrong (although, that too). I mean she describes the painting incorrectly. First, there is the wonderful picture of a serviceman returning home from the war. ( Post cover, May 26, 1945) He stands, back the viewer, in front of his old apartment, while his family and neighbors react with joy. There is a man on the roof over the door to the apartment, repairing the shingles. Solomon says this repairman is black. Hes not. This mistake is a mystery to me. I dont know how she could have made it. In other cases, her false descriptions are easier to understand. Theyre ideologically driven.
Consider, for example, one of Rockwells best-known paintings: Rosie the Riveter. ( Post cover, May 29, 1943) Solomon says that Rosie the Riveters eyes are closed. (224) Theyre not. Theyre looking down, and the lids are low, but they are very clearly openshe perfectly echoes the look of Michelangelos Isaiah, after which Rockwell modeled the painting.
If you stick with the book itself, this error, like the previous one, is inexplicable. But Solomon reveals the source of the error in an interview :
Q: In one painting, Girl at Mirror, you say the doll in the picture could be masturbating.
A: Did I say that? I took out so much, you cannot imagine. You know who else is masturbating? Rosie the Riveter. Women to him were like sexual demons. [She looks up the painting.] Over here, the riveting-gun penis on her lap, and in the background these pulsating red waves. Even though she’s a worker she’s not working, she’s just eating and satisfying her desires. But I thought it was too muchno one would agree with meso I took just took it out.
Admittedly, Im reading between the lines here, but the inference seems obvious enough: Solomon decides that Rosie is masturbating, and so imagines her in a pose redolent of sexual pleasurethink: Berninis Ecstasy of St. Theresa (interpreted as carnally as possible). Because of her sexualized take on the painting, her description of the painting goes wrong.
My third example of a wrongly-described painting will, finally, turn us towards the second of the two disturbing contentions about Rockwell that I began withthe contention that Rockwells self-absorption led to three deaths. Theres a lovely two-panel before-and-after painting of a family drive to and from the lake. ( Post cover, August 30, 1947) Mom, Dad, kids, and Grandma are crammed into the car. In the morning, they are brimming with energy, and in the evening they are slumped and exhausted. Solomon reports that unlike the others (all of whom have gone from perky to exhausted), evening Grandma is unchanged. But shes not unchanged. Evening Grandma is quite different from morning Grandma. First, evening Grandmas hands are out of the image, no longer visibly clenched in front of her like morning Grandmas. Second, evening Grandmas mouth has taken on a far more mellow and relaxed look. Morning Grandmas deep frown is gone. Grandma has changed less dramatically than the members of the younger two generations in the car, but she has changed, and the change is easily visible. Morning Grandma has a clenched rigidity. Evening Grandma has lost that clenched look. She is better for her day.
I said this had relevance to the second accusation. And it does. Here is what Solomon takes away from the painting: The joke, of course, is that theres nothing more exhausting than a day off with your family. You leave home refreshed; you return home needing a break from your break. (241) The idea here is that Rockwell doesnt like to spend time with his family, does anything he can to avoid it, and prefers to be left alone with his workand that this apparently cute image of family togetherness is really an expression of Rockwells utter lack of interest in his own family. Well, if the characters in the picture are meant to exemplify that theme, then Grandma at least is a singular failure. She is returning home much refreshed.
But why think about the exhaustion of the others in the car in the way that Solomon suggests? As she says, you might be exhausted after a long day with your family because you find your family tiresome . But, alternatively, you might be exhausted after a long day with your family because you find your family tiring . And thats a very different thing. Its easy to imagine the family in this picture spending an exhausting but delightful day at the lake, playing around in their little boat Skippy. As it happens, Rockwells second wife Mary wrote to her sister about a day spent with Norman, their two oldest children, and Rockwells artist friend Fred Hildebrandt: You would have died if you could have seen us five in that little leaky boat with sides about three inches above the water! But I never had more fun. (189) The overall tone of the picture in question is far more in accord with this latter interpretation. But Solomon cant see thatand even more surprisingly, Solomon cant see the evident fact that evening Grandma has changed for the betterbecause Solomon is so convinced that the picture must be attacking family life.
The theme of finding family tiresome is a large one for Solomon. She insists particularly on Rockwells utter neglect of his family, and in particular of his first two wives. By all accounts, Rockwells first marriage was not a good one. After his wife fell in love with another man, she went to Las Vegas and obtained the divorce on grounds of mental cruelty. Solomon writes Irene charged that her husband was so absorbed in his work that he had barely looked at her in the fourteen years in which she had tried to share his life. (141) Irene remarried, but her life remained sad.
Only four years after the divorce, on a Friday in November, Irenes lifeless body was found in the bathtub by her husband. Her death certificate lists the cause as accidental drowning. In reality, it is nearly impossible for an adult to drown in the shallow water of a tub because of the strength of physical reflexes that alert you to danger. But the firing of reflexes can be blocked by various factors, such as the consumption of too much alcohol. In Irenes case, it cannot be known whether drinking played a role; no autopsy was performed. (141-142)
Irene is the first casualty of Rockwells indifference in Solomons account. Mary is the second.
On her death certificate, the cause of death is listed as coronary heart disease. That was the official explanation that was furnished to the locals . . . Friends wondered whether she had taken her own life . . . At Rockwells request, no autopsy was performed; the quantity of drugs in her bloodstream at the end remains unknown. Suicide was not out of the question. In the past, she had taken at least two overdoses and been sent off to psychiatric hospitals. (330)
Solomon hammers repeatedly on the theme that Rockwells neglect is what drove Mary to this desperation. Rockwell indeed was a workaholic, famously going to his studio seven days a week. That this devotion to his work amounts to cruelty or neglect is a tremendous leap.
Take the very first example she offers of Rockwells neglect: He spent the evening of the day that he proposed to Mary at a Boy Scout event, rather than with her. But Rockwell was presenting Eagle Scout awards at an event which had obviously been arranged far ahead of time. He had a previous commitment, and its only reasonable to think that both Norman and Mary knew ahead of time that, due to this commitment, he wasnt going to be sticking around for a cozy evening with his new fiancée. Solomon says that Mary had a reason to feel slighted, but surely she held her tongue. She was good at putting on a cheerful front. She had been engaged for less than twelve hours and already he had to miss dinner and be somewhere else. (146) But theres no reason at all to think that Mary was such a petulant child as to feel slighted.
Another example. Early in their marriage, Mary and Norman moved to Paris. There, Rockwell struck up a friendship with the American artist Alan Haemer. Solomon says that Mary was vexed by her husbands attachment to yet another worshipful young friend who distracted him from his marriage. (156) But theres no evidence that Mary was vexed, or that Rockwell was distracted. (But hang onto this point for a while: it is connected to Solomons claim that Rockwell was a repressed homosexual, and that these worshipful friendships were homoerotic, in a repressed sort of way.) The actual evidence is entirely to the contrary. Solomon herself cites a letter Mary wrote: It was awfully nice, as she wrote, for him to have some one near him, a man, and an artist with whom to talk things over. In short, Marys own testimony is that she was glad Norman had found a friend. How Solomon manages to deduce that she was vexed about this friendship is anyones guess. A great part of Solomons case for Rockwells supposed neglect of Mary rests on just such manipulations of the evidence as this.
Sometimes, its even worse. Solomon writes about a passage in Rockwells autobiography, where he says of Irene, After wed been married awhile, I realized that she didnt love me. Solomon comments: He never seemed to flip the question and contemplate whether or not he loved her. (82) In other words, he was so detached from Irene that it never even occurred to him to think about whether he loved her. Except that it did occur to him to think about it. And he said so within five lines of the passage shes just quoted. When I realized that she didnt love me and, later on, that I didnt love her, I didnt say lets quit. I didnt say much of anything. So the marriage lasted fourteen years. Yes, like virtually anyone would, Rockwell tends to put the blame on Irene. ( She didnt love me first !) But he does flip the question. Solomon hides this. No, she contradicts it.
For Solomon, even Rockwells kindness serves as evidence of his cruelty. Recall the passage about the divorce from Irene that I quoted above, with its dark reference to mental cruelty. Well, those were the grounds on which a collusive divorce like Rockwells would be granted. Rockwell didnt contest those grounds, precisely because he knew that Irene wanted to be free of him so she could marry her lover. Had he contested the divorce, then obviously that would have been evidence of his self-absorption, too, since he would have been standing in the way of Irenes new life. Damned if you do, damned if you dont.
I mentioned three deaths allegedly brought about through Rockwells self-absorption, and so far Ive only gotten to two. The third is the death of Billy Paineobviously a different kind of story than the deaths of Rockwells wives. Solomon suggests that Paine was driven to suicide by Rockwells throwing him over. It is possible that Billys fall from the rooftop was not an accident, but a suicide. As the papers reported, nobody saw him fall. (97) Well, its also possible that Rockwell threw Billy out the window. But it would be crazy to hint that he actually did. And as far as the evidence goes, its equally crazy to hint that Billy threw himself out. But despite the lack of evidence, Solomon wants to see something ugly and destructive in Rockwells relationship with Paine, so she manages to see it. Yet again, her seeing that ugliness prevents her from seeing Rockwells pictures properly.
Consider Rockwells illustration of Tom Sawyer creeping from his window for his midnight meeting with Huck Finn. The text that accompanies the image says a single minute later he was dressed and out of the window and creeping along the roof of the ell on all fours. He meowd with caution once or twice, as he went. The picture shows Tom with one leg thrown out of the window and resting on a drainpipe. He has a hand to his mouth, which is wide open, obviously to meow. Solomon writes, Tom is transported to a suburban house with another house visible next door and, as he climbs out of the window, he pauses and cries out into the night. (171) Its evident that Solomon wants the picture to evoke Billy Paine. I dont doubt that Rockwell thought of Billy Paine as he painted Tom coming out of the windowhow could he not? But Solomon wants to draw more from the image than this evocation allows. She tells us that the image departs dramatically from Twains story. In other words, Rockwell forced the story to his own ends, because he was haunted by Billy Paine. But its false that the picture departs dramatically from the text.
To rebut just one of her suggested departures: Rockwell hasnt moved the house to the suburbs to capture the location of Billys death. Aunt Sallys house was not out in the country. It was in the middle of town, and would have had houses all around it. Rockwell has painted the town of St. Petersburg (or rather Hannibal) as he saw it when he visited. Indeed, he took pride in the fact that unlike previous illustrators of Twain, he had taken the time to go and visit the town so that he could be as authentic as possible. Solomon wants to find dramatic departure here, so that she can use it to suggest that Billy Paines death weighed heavily on Rockwell (due to the guilt, you know), and pushed him to falsify his illustration. But to be frank, her whole discussion of Billy Paines death and its effect on Rockwell is more than a little confusing. At one moment, Solomon is accusing Rockwell of being cold and non-responsive to Paines death. (97) At the next, shes implying hes terribly haunted by it. I think its more likely he was just plain saddened by it, as anyone would be. As is so often the case, Solomon ignores a story that has a direct bearing on this matter. In a 1928 interview, Rockwell and Eddie Carson (we met him earliera friend of Billys and another of Rockwells regular models) were telling a journalist about some of Rockwells working methods, and his relationships with his models.
Rockwell, joking good-naturedly with the boy about the trouble he and his friends too often stirred up, momentarily forgot where the topic would lead him. He began merrily to discuss Billys tendency to play tricks in the studio, finding himself stammering within seconds: Billy Paine was the worst of all and. The interviewer explains that both smiles faded. For some time neither [Rockwell nor Eddie] seemed able to speak. Then the artist recovered enough to continue talking.
What stands out in this story is that Rockwell recalled Billy with affection, and felt genuine sorrow over his death. Perhaps he became choked up because of deep guilt. But I doubt it. And at any rate, when a biographer wishes to present as robust a take on Rockwells relationship with Paine as Solomon does, I would think shed feel compelled to deal with this story. But she doesnt. However, she doesnt completely ignore it. She mentions this interview. She simply strips from it any mention of Rockwells choking up. She doesnt overlook the storyshe leaves the crucial bit out of it. (100-101)
Elsewhere, Solomon talks about the earliest known painting of Rockwells: Its a deathbed scene, with a minister kneeling by the bedside of a little child. The picture is an illustration of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. On the image Rockwell includes the lines But in his duty prompt at every call / He watched, he wept, he prayed and felt for all. Rockwell painted this as a project in his illustration class, taught by Thomas Fogarty. For Fogartys fundamental rule of illustration is that the picture must be the servant of the text. Solomon says that this picture breaks Fogartys rule because the poem doesnt mention any deathbed scene.
Now, as it happens, the poem does include a deathbed scene: Beside the bed where parting life was layed / And sorrow, guilt, and pain, by turns, dismayed / The reverend champion stood. At his control / Despair and anguish fled the struggling soul / Comfort came down the trembling wretch to raise / And his last faltering accents whispered praise. It seems likely that Rockwell, unlike Solomon, actually took the trouble to read the poem.
Now, ask yourself why Solomon has tried to argue that Rockwell has done something contrary to the instructions of his teacher. I think the answer is this: Rockwell moved the scene indoors and chose to capture a moment of tenderness between an older man and a young man, even though no such scene is described in the poem. (46) Once again we encounter the insinuation of pedophilic impulses in Rockwell, connected with errors about the art.
The distorting influence of Solomons agenda is easy to see in cases where it prompts her to simply describe the works wrongly. Sometimes, it manifests itself merely in the interpretations. Consider Solomons take on Rockwells painting of a puppeteer, which shows a marionette man and woman bowing to one another. ( Post cover for October 22, 1932.) We can read this painting, Solomon tells us, as an allegory of an unhappy marriage, capturing a man and a woman who are forced to play roles and bow to social conventions that are not of their choosing. (159) So this painting, Solomon hints, is evidence of Rockwells tortured sense of being trapped in a loveless marriage and forced by an uncaring and unaccepting world to deny his true self. This picture was produced only a couple of years into Rockwells second marriage, and theres no reason at all to think that he was unhappy in it. But even if there were, the picture itself gives no license to Solomons interpretation. Or consider the Texan, a picture of Gary Cooper being made up for his role in his newest Western movie. ( Post cover for May 24, 1930.) The picture has a large cowboy hat in the foreground, in between the viewer and Gary Cooper. This hat serves as a barricade in the foreground to keep you from touching. He [and here Solomon means Rockwell] cannot allow himself to touch what he wants. (140) Possibly. Or, imagine that the hat is indeed supposed to serve as some kind of distancing deviceperhaps it is in service of the real theme of the painting, which is the odd falsity of Hollywood: Gary Cooper is cut off from the viewer by the hat, because hes behind the screen, in a land where cowboys wear lipstick. Or take the young sailor swept away by the new picture of his girlfriend. ( Post cover for January 18, 1919.) He sits with a buddy, staring off into space, clutching the photo. He is close to his buddy, though, and his unclutched hand seems to rest on the knee of his friend. This makes you wonder why a young man who is supposedly thinking about his girlfriend is so comfortable sidling up to his hunky male friend. (88) But it doesnt make me wonder that.
These interpretations show that alongside her persistent interest in pedophilia, Solomon has a persistent interest in homosexuality. A great deal of Solomons putative discussion of Rockwells art consists in suggestions that Rockwell was homosexual. Perhaps he was. I take it that few people today would be deeply shocked by this suggestion. But as usual, her evidence for it disintegrates upon serious examination. Solomon argues, for example, that he had lots of male friends, and some of these relationships were fairly intense. And this is true. But, first, there is such a thing as friendship, and it can be intense without being sexualized. Second, Rockwells intense relationships with men were almost exclusively with men who were artists. He did have some friendships with women artists (the literary artist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, for example, and Grandma Moses). But yes, mainly, his artistic friendships were with men. This seems both natural (in the first half of the 20th century, you didnt find professional women artists on every corner) and wise. Is it really a good idea for a husband to forge deep, intense relationships with women? If Rockwell is going to go off on hunting trips or sketching parties with other artists, it seems only good sense for them to be other men. Solomon imagines that Mary was vexed by Rockwells friendships with men: I expect shed have been far more vexed if hed been off on intimate adventures with other women.
Rockwell also said or wrote some things that Solomon thinks smack of homoeroticism. For example, after spending the night in a hunting cabin with his friend Fred Hildebrandt and two hunting guides, Rockwell wrote in his journal Fred is most fetching in his long flannels. (163) It takes a real tin ear for Rockwell-speak to think that theres anything other than corny ironic humor in the comment. Its the sort of thing Rockwell would say. To think it is evidence of suppressed homosexuality is to not grasp Rockwell.
And I hope by now the reader will not be surprised to learn that Solomon ignores evidence to the contrary. For example, Rockwells relationship with Irene involved, he himself tells us, a fair amount of open adultery on both their parts. He slept around. With women, I mean. Perhaps he didnt enjoy his dalliances in the least, and only engaged in them because he felt they were expected of him. But if you want to argue that Rockwell was a homosexual, I think the fact that he was, by his own admission, a serial adulterer is relevant. And Solomon unaccountably says not a single word about it. Why not?
But Solomon really just sees sexhomosexual, pedophilic, and, yes, incestuousjust about everywhere . Take Rockwells nice picture of a Christmas homecoming, which shows a young man being joyfully greeted by his family and friends (the Rockwell family and their friends, as it happens) as momMary Rockwellembraces the boy. ( Post cover for December 25, 1948.) Solomon offhandedly claims that it is fraught with sexual innuendo. (303) I dont see any sexual innuendo here. The picture is of a mom hugging her son , in the company of the whole happy family.
Heres another example. Take a fairly goofy picture: Rockwells mural of Yankee Doodle. This painting was done for a tavern in Princeton, New Jersey. Underneath, Rockwell included the words: Yankee Doodle came to town, riding on a pony, etc. Solomon tells us that Rockwell struggled over whether to write came to town, or went to town. He asked the board of trustees of Princeton to decide. Their vote was a tie, so Rockwell decided to go with came. Solomons quip: Interpret at your own risk. (179)
The very first Post covera boy pushing a baby carriage while two of his buddies make fun of himis understood as an illustration of how Rockwells art is born from his humiliation. (76-77) A suitcase in the final Billy Paine Post cover reminds us that Rockwells art, however accessible, keeps his deepest inspirations hidden from view. (98) In Freedom of Speech , it is somehow important that the central figure is unattached and sexually available, unbuttoned and unzipped. (207)
Its not just when shes speaking of his art that these comments are trotted out. Consistently throughout the book she drops little lines that are completely off the wall, but taken together, they create a certain sort of atmosphere in the unwary readers mind. Heres a sampling. She writes of Rockwells youthful models, The integrity of the boys was never in question. But his own character was not nearly so straightforward. (101) She speaks of Rockwells friendship with illustrators Frank and J. C. Leyendecker as both an artistic apprenticeship and an unclassifiable romantic crush. (116) Rockwell once told a reporter that he had trouble painting womenthey all come out looking like old men, he said. (Which is false, of course, but Rockwell was famously self-critical.) The reporter said He stuttered a little as he said this because he felt that he had said something that he should not have. And Solomon glosses the story: Perhaps he felt that he had confessed to his lack of interest in women. (125) Solomon says that He squeezed his feet into tight shoes, as if trying to keep the dirtier parts of himself constrained. (190) Regarding Shuffletons Barbershop , possibly Rockwells greatest painting, Solomon says that a barbershop is a site of licensed physical contact between men, a place where men touch each other. (265) She tells of how Rockwell once declined to paint a clown for his ill son, on grounds that he couldnt draw from his imagination, but needed models in place. Solomon writes, He was afraid of what might come out if he allowed himself to fall prey to his imaginings. (231). When Rockwell went to Hannibal to do his research on his Mark Twain illustrations, he bought some clothes from people who were out working in the fieldsgenuine rustic clothes of the people of Hannibal. He did this sort of thing all the time: There are lots of stories of Rockwell bargaining to get hats or other items of clothes that he wanted to paint. Solomon writes he did enjoy acquiring clothing from men who caught his eye, as if it were possible to acquire the less tangible parts of them as well. (168)
Like a drumbeat, throughout the book, these sorts oflets call them observationsare repeated, without any concern for consistency Take the last two: They show that Solomon is well aware that Rockwell always painted from a model of some kind or other, and that he often purchased clothes or other items that he wanted to use in his paintings. (In fact, he had an enormous collection of props and costumes.) She tells about how he once became angry at a French fisherman whose hat Rockwell tried to buy: The fisherman refused to sell, even when Rockwell offered him a weeks pay. (157) Thats Rockwelldevoted realist, trying to get the details exactly right. She claims that his attention to detail borders on obsession. (76) But when Rockwell buys clothes from the people in Hannibal, hes creepily trying to buy their souls. Or when he refuses to draw something for his son without using a model, its because hes afraid of what will come out. It looks to me like these stories are explained best through his devotion to getting the details right, and not in the way Solomon wants to explain them. And this returns us to the pedophilia issue. Recall that the Before the Shot Post cover is supposed to have some kind of pedophilic point. In that context, Solomon tells us that after the boys modeling session, Rockwell went to his home and asked if he could have the pants the child had worn: He wanted to be sure he had the color right. (318) Solomon tells us this is an unsettling anecdote, yet further evidence of Rockwells pedophilic impulses. But its not. Its evidence of his devotion to getting the details right. And, as Christopher Benfey points out in the New York Review of Books , there is pictorial evidence that Rockwell did indeed struggle to get the color of the pants right. Solomon is sometimes obsessive in her presentation of irrelevant details (did we really need to know two of Rockwells phone numbers? Or the day of the week on which Rockwells grandparents were married? Wednesday, by the way). But all too often, the relevant details are dropped or distorted.
Sometimes Solomons approach to art is strikingly unusual, as exemplified in her ideas about the qualifications for serving as an artists model. For example, Irene Rockwell modeled for only one painting: an image of a young mother tucking her children into bed. Solomon says Irene modeled for the moma peculiar role for a woman who never bore children. (102) Its peculiar for a woman to pose as a model in a picture of a mother, simply because the woman is not, in real life, a mother? How so? (Is it bizarre for an actor to play a murderer, even though hes never actually killed anyone?) But the same thought shows up elsewhere: Solomon mentions a Boy Scout recruiting poster that Rockwell made, using Eddie Carson as the model. Although Eddie posed in full scout regalia, he was not in fact a Boy Scout, which no one found objectionable. (92) To which I can only ask: Why would anyone find it objectionable? Another example: Rob Shuffleton, the real-life owner of Shuffletons barbershop, posed in Rockwells picture of his shop as the cellist with his back to the viewer. Solomon writes, In real life, Shuffleton did not in fact play cello, did not play any instrument at all. (266) Where is the relevance of the fact that Shuffletonthe modeldoesnt play cello in real life? This is perplexing, but not, in itself, important.
However, it connects to another passage. Solomon mentions the Post cover which pictures three elderly women gossiping. (January 12, 1929.) The same person modeled for all three women: namely, James K. Van Brunt of the famous mustache. Rockwell painted this cover in the wake of the ten dollar shave. Solomon tells us this picture involves cross-dressing, and then she writes Van Brunt is disguised as three different women, all of them homely, middle-aged busybodies dressed in old-fashioned petticoats and crinoline. (123) Van Bruntthe modelis disguised as the women? And his adopting this disguise amounts to cross-dressing ?
Cross-dressing makes another forced appearance in the book. In his autobiography, Rockwell tells how he became ashamed of his little pot belly, and decided to buy a corset to hide the bulge. He wore the corset for a few hours, until someone noticed its strings hanging out of his shirt. Mortified, Rockwell threw the corset in the garbage. Solomon tells us that this is Rockwells official entry into the world of cross-dressing. (111) Well, if its an official entry, its also an official exittheres no hint that Rockwell ever again put on womens clothing. But more importantly, the purchase of the corset appears to have been purely instrumental: driven by a desire to hide his belly, and not in the least by a desire to dress in womens clothing. And the corset shop advertised its wares as being suitable for both men and women. Yet again, were not seeing Rockwell, were only seeing Solomon. Solomon claims her book is the first to persuasively make the case for Rockwells significance as an artist. This is a false in two ways. First, the case has been made before. Second, her case is not persuasive. It rests largely on her indefensible interpretation of Rockwells soul. As she says, the thrill of his work is that he was able to use a commercial form to thrash out his private obsessions . . . (175) But he didnt have the private obsessions she thinks he had, and so he wasnt thrashing them out in his work.
Solomons failure to really be docile to Rockwells work and life is a painful missed opportunity. One of the great payoffs of reading a well-researched biography of an artist is that you can come to understand the artists work in a new light. Let me take one case as an illustration of how one might receive such new light. It is reported that Mary Rockwell had an abortion in 1938. As far as I know, this story was first told by Laura Claridge, who bases her account of it on the testimony of an unnamed Rockwell child. Claridge manages to draw out of this story a genuinely illuminating take on one of Rockwells images. Rockwells first Post cover after the supposed abortion was a self-portrait: an image from behind, showing Rockwell at an easel with a blank canvas in front of him ( Post cover for October 8, 1938). Rockwell comically scratches his head, indicating that hes got no idea what to paint. A standard fear: one Rockwell confessed he was constantly haunted by. But if Rockwell had just had a child aborted, the painting takes on a much deeper meaning. Consider the little note on the side of the canvas: it says Due Date. Rockwell looks at the empty canvas where his workhis issue: his progenyshould be, and sees emptiness. Its a terribly stark and sad image, so interpreted. Solomon replicates Claridges interpretation of this painting. But Solomons own interpretations do not convey this sort of light.
In this context, I also need to point out that Solomon never mentions Claridge at all. This is very surprising. Claridge wrote the first major biography of Rockwell, and Solomon naturally covers a great deal of the same ground. At least in this one case, Solomon appropriates Claridges insight into Rockwells work without attribution. Admittedly, its at least possible that Solomon came up with her interpretation of this painting independently from Claridge. But still, youd think a footnote would be called for, since its hard to believe Solomon never so much as read Claridges book, and so never noticed that shed replicated Claridges thought. Rockwell remains a perfect stranger to Solomon. Anything that you might really learn about Rockwells life or art from Solomons book, you can learn just as easily elsewhere, and without the admixture of such an array of confusions, misrepresentations and omissions. There is no excuse for Solomons book. There is some excuse, I think, for the many laudatory reviews that have been published, most of which uncritically accept and repeat Solomons claims. Reviewers for newspapers and magazines cant be expected to be experts on the life and art of Norman Rockwell, even when theyre reviewing a book that purports to be about his life and art. So these reviewers cant be held fully responsible for their failure to challenge Solomon.
Still, its a shame that it is now apparently being taken for granted in public conversations about Rockwell that Solomons take is fundamentally correct, even in its most patently ridiculous bits. For example, at least one review led with the surprising claim that Rockwell was a religious nonbeliever. The claim is drawn straight from Solomon. (342) Its absurd. As an adult, Rockwell was not a practicing Christian, but theres no reason at allat least, none ever presented by any biographerto think that he was not, in some generic and genial sense, a Christian. Dont mistake my point here: I dont want to argue that Rockwell was a man of deep faith. Im simply saying that the claim that Rockwell is a nonbeliever is now being uncritically repeated, despite there being not the least shred of evidence that its true. Sadly, the same is true of other claims that are far more destructive to Rockwells character.
Solomon, Deborah. American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
Rockwell, Norman. My Adventures as an Illustrator (New York: Abrams, 1988).
Claridge, Laura. Norman Rockwell (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2003).
Patrick Toner is an associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University. He is working on a book on hylomorphism, and a book on the art of Norman Rockwell.