Through a Glass Darkly: ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’

Norman Rockwell is one of those American artists, like Winslow Homer, Frank Capra, and Jimmy Stewart, whom we think we all know intimately. In his myriad illustrations and paintings, he captures something so essential within the collective historical experience of the 20th century that we feel he’s speaking to us directly in an immediate and profound way.

A painter of sentiment and ideals, Rockwell’s work has become synonymous with American Old World nostalgia. “I paint life as I would like it to be,” Rockwell once told a reporter unapologetically. It’s fitting that two great movie directors of late 20th century American kitsch, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are ardent Rockwell fans and passionate collectors. “Rockwell painted the American dream better than anyone,” Spielberg said.

Yet the man behind the visions is more complicated and strange than we could have ever realized. Deborah Solomon, the biographer and art critic who has written compelling accounts of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock, shows us that underneath that familiar image of Rockwell as the lanky, bespectacled artist at his easel, smoking his pipe and refashioning Old Master scenes into tender images of small town life, was an emotionally troubled, repressed, frustrated individual, who wrestled his whole life with gnawing inadequacies and inner demons. In the words of his psychiatrist, the famous Erik Erikson, Rockwell seemed to funnel all his desire for happiness into his art.

Solomon’s incisive yet breezy biography is a rare, blessed item to readers today: it’s a thought-provoking, critical book on a major artist that’s actually a genuine pleasure to read. You can’t put it down. One of Solomon’s brilliant, winning approaches to fashioning a narrative is to make it personal. Rockwell’s story in finding his voice as an artist is also part of her story towards becoming a writer and an art historian, and in a much larger sense, it’s our story, too—the eternal story of trying to express oneself, of finding a sense of purpose through the act of creation.

We move from Rockwell’s past in New York, the grandson of an English immigrant and small-time illustrator for Currier and Ives, to his boyhood days as a frustrated scrawny weakling in the age of Teddy Roosevelt and rugged masculinity (the theme of masculinity in all its various shades is a pervasive part of Rockwell’s work, which Solomon explains brilliantly), to his student days in The Art Students’ League in New York City and the intellectual foment of the Armory Show of 1913 (which inspired young Rockwell in terms of its ambitions and expansiveness, even though he would still cling to the art of Old Masters and American genre painting as the template for his work).

The influences in Rockwell’s art are fascinating. Some are well-known and expected like Rembrandt, the famous American illustrator-artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington and Howard Pyle, and the paintings of Thomas Eakins. Other influences are lesser known: Picasso (“the greatest of them all”, Rockwell gushed), and the far-reaching impact of Charles Dickens who guided Rockwell in terms of structuring a narrative within his work. Paintings like No Swimming(1921), The Gossips (1948), The Runaway (1958), and countless others have that Dickensian duality of boisterous energy and intimacy.

One of the fascinating and often neglected aspects of Rockwell’s work that Solomon explores is his fascination with men. Rockwell’s childhood frustrations with his masculinity and his anxieties towards women gets externalized in some of the more poignant paintings. His strongest work features boys or men, while even his more compelling work with female subjects involves the woman taking on certain masculine qualities (Double Trouble for Willie Gillis, 1942, Rosie the Riveter, 1943, The Shiner, 1953).

Depicting women was an unusually challenging task for Rockwell. “I learned to draw everything except glamorous women,” he confessed. “No matter how much I tried to make them look sexy, they always ended up looking silly… or like somebody’s mother.” Read into this what you will. (Chuck Jones once confessed that he created characters, like Pepe LePew and Bugs Bunny in drag, out a sense of frustration with his inability to be appealing to girls.)

Norman Rockwell, The Golden Rule, 1961, Oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum

The great legacy of Rockwell is that more than any other artist, he reflected the collective strivings, dreams and aspirations of Americans over the course of the 20th century. From two world wars to the Civil Rights movement, Rockwell had tremendous range and depth as an artist. The same man who painted charming trifles like Four Sporting Boys: Basketball, 1951, and After the Prom, 1957, also painted The Four Freedoms, 1943, The Golden Rule, 1961, and The Problem We All Live With 1964. The image Americans saw of themselves in his paintings were a composite of realities and ideals—the truth of what we are in all our pleasures and pettiness, and the dream of what we hope to become.

The “American Mirror” of the title is not exactly a straightforward reflective surface, Rockwell’s paintings as a mirror to the American experience, but a larger metaphor for the process of mediation and self-realization. “The title of this book is not meant to suggest that Rockwell held a mirror up to American life and painted a literal, mimetic version of it,” Solomon explains.

His work mirrors his own temperament—his sense of humor, his fear of depths—and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves than the sallow, solemn, hard-bitten Puritans they knew from eighteenth-century portraits. When you gaze into a mirror, the writer Anne Hollander notes, you are imagining rather than seeing.

American Mirror is a dazzling biography and an extraordinary achievement in the chronicle of a major American artist. The book is already getting well-deserved glowing notices, including a notable one from the actor, writer and Grammy-award winning bluegrass singer, Steve Martin. “Deborah Solomon has created a biography as vivid and touching as a Rockwell interior. This is the definitive biography of an American master who came in through the back door.” For the lover of American art and history, this book is not to be missed.

RATING 10 / 10