American Dreams, Schemes, and Delusions: On Norman Rockwell’s Art and Social Consciousness

Tom Rockwell's Afterword in the reissue of Norman Rockwell's My Adventures as an Illustrator takes pains to suggest that the awakening of his father's social consciousness was probably only possible after leaving The Saturday Evening Post.

My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition
Norman Rockwell
Abbeville Press
May 2019

The arrival of Deborah Solomon‘s 2013 Norman Rockwell biography American Mirror (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) seemed to solidify suspicions many people had harbored for years about the archetypal American illustrator/portrait artist. Most baby boomers will recognize Rockwell if not by name then by solidified images like 1943’s “Freedom from Want“, 1954’s “Breaking Home Ties“, or 1947’s “Going and Coming“. These were images of worship, teens going away to college, and the simple pleasures of summer vacation. Rockwell spent nearly 50 years (1916-1963) elevating and promulgating these American ideals through hundreds of the Saturday Evening Post covers, commissions from the Boy Scouts of America, various portraits of famous figures from Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon), and — perhaps most iconic — his 1961 commission for the United Nations, “The Golden Rule“.

A quarter century after his 1978 death, Solomon’s biography suggests Rockwell may have been a closeted homosexual based on such stretched “evidence” as a Quebec camping trip between Rockwell and his male assistant. She quotes from Rockwell’s diaries this passage (commenting on the assistant) that he looked “…most fetching in his long flannels.” Later, ruminating on Rockwell’s focus on youth (particularly young males) “we are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.” Solomon imposes these suggestions in her narrative and adds (in an obligatory manner) that there exists “…no evidence that he acted on his impulses or behaved in a way that was inappropriate for its time.”

More troubling than these accusations and thinly-veiled implications is the irresponsibility of the writer herself, who seems to think that merely suggesting the possibility is the minimum distance she should be expected to travel. It’s within this context that Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail has released My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition. First published in 1960, this autobiography (written in an “as told to” fashion in collaboration with his son Tom) now comes into an American artistic sensibility where the substance and themes of many Rockwell magazine covers have long since vanished. His was (primarily) an all-white, all Protestant (or Presbyterian), all humble and infinitely patriotic population. Old fashioned values were literally Mom, Pop, baseball, God, Apple Pie, and Uncle Sam, not necessarily always in that order.

The mission of Abigail Rockwell (and by default one can probably assume anybody directly connected with the family and the Rockwell legacy) is clearly (and literally) spelled out in her Introduction: “It reflects the harmony of two voices: my grandfather’s, [Norman] and my father’s [Tom] as the ‘ghostwriter.'” The difficulty with any artist working outside their medium is that the end result will not always prove captivating. In short, the fact that this autobiography makes for a slow read should probably make the generous reader feel both comforted and frustrated.


Colorful keyboard by b1-foto (Pixabay License / Pixabay License)

The publishing world of 1960 certainly would not have been ready to release a tell-all confessional from “America’s artist” in which he decried the apparent policy of his main employer (The Saturday Evening Post) to feature colorful covers of solely white people. Working from taped conversations between his father and himself, Tom pieced together 19 Chapters. They’re titled like an old Mark Twain novel (e.g., “I sign my name in blood”, and “Charcoal, perspiration, and turpentine”). The fact that a long monologue about an artist’s apprenticeship in the early years of the 20th century and going through the 1950s does not touch upon much of the outside world besides WWI, WWII, portraiture of famous people, and sentimentalizing anonymous models should not minimize Rockwell’s importance as a great American artist. It just makes for a slow reading experience for the bulk of the text.

Let’s begin with the mission statement Abigail Rockwell provides at the end of her Introduction and make of it what you will:

“This autobiography is essential because it conveys Norman Rockwell’s character and process of work…His work defies categorization — he elevated illustration to a fine art through his…unwavering ambition…He bridged two worlds, commercial and fine art…Mind meets hand with heart in perfected harmony.”

Taking all this into consideration, the reader informed of Rockwell due to his pervasive presence in their white middle class suburban neighborhood will take comfort in this book. It’s a full restoration of the original 1960 text, including the playful black and white pen-and-ink illustrations that head each chapter, which will prove revelatory to those most familiar with his magazine covers and paintings. It also features some post-1960 paintings and illustrations which, for unfortunate but obvious reasons, were not included in the original text.

These include some of Rockwell’s most important work, like 1964’s “The Problem We All Live With“, for Look magazine, inspired by six-year-old African-American Ruby Bridges, in 1954, bravely integrating an all-white school in New Orleans. There’s a beautiful full-page 1962 oil sketch called “Indian Art Student” in which the woman looks like a Gauguin model. “Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)”, another illustration for Look, from 1965, is rendered in a hazy blurry oil sketch that’s the antithesis of the style in “The Problem We All Live With”, proving that racism hides both in the sharply crisp glare of daylight and the muddled, swampy danger of a seeminly endless dark evening. The fact that Look magazine commissioned these Civil Rights paintings says more about the implicitly racist limitations of The Saturday Evening Post than it does about Rockwell’s willingness to explore racial issues as a man in his late 60s, living in the 1960s, tentatively willing to start making waves.

The early Rockwell paintings and sketches, seen here in the text’s early chapters, reflect a Victorian-era sensibility. It should come as no surprise that Rockwell found inspiration through drawing characters from Charles Dickens novels (especially Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit). Christmas and Santa Claus and the image Rockwell helped popularize through Coca Cola advertisements are seen here. Rockwell portrays his father (through visual and written text) as a high-class professional in a suit and posing near an old-fashioned telephone. Success is seen through the hapless urban commuters, but the idealized world is there in country life as well, and Rockwell understands what that means:

“Sentimental trash? Maybe. But that’s how I saw the country. I actually lived the idealized version of a farm boy in the late nineteenth century…the clean air, the green fields, the thousand and one things to do…got somehow into us and changed our personalities as much as the sun changed the color of our skins.”

Norman Rockwell is on a mission here and he does not hesitate to remind his reader of his intent. Life as an illustrator was that of a “…recorder of history and the contemporary scene, as an interpreter of the classics — Shakespeare, Dante, Milton.” Rockwell and his artistic generation were part of the pre-WWI crowd both celebrating the presence and mourning the loss of this profession. Artists Howard Pyle, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Frederic Remington all passed while Rockwell was in art school. His deference to their legacies is both modest and appreciated. It’s rare that a memoir from a prototypical American icon of this era will include such references. One wonders if Rockwell would have been so generous had he exploded into American consciousness decades earlier.

What was it like for an artist in those times to draw a live nude model? It was great — if you were a man. Rockwell writes: “…it would be indecent in those days for men and women to look at a live model together; in the nineteenth century nude female models in men’s classes had worn blindfolds.” Rockwell’s memories of some models, like Antonio Corsi, make the reader wonder if more stories exist about these characters:

“His dark-skinned body was lithe, strong, and supple- wonderful to draw…On street corners he would suddenly throw up his arms as though he were beseeching God, and stand so a full minute, his eyes riveted tragically on the sky.”

Later, a nude female model demonstrates her suppleness by doing cartwheels and double back flips on the model stand. “There,” Rockwell recalls her saying. “…I’m a circus bareback rider, you know. Don’t work in winter, but I’ve got to keep in trim.’ All that week, she performed for us during the rest periods.” Rockwell’s narrative comes alive during such recollections, and while they may not be fully verifiable, they do make for some excitement while the reader follows him through the sometimes tedious journey to making something of himself. For example, he works in the opera world, carrying a heavy-set diva from one part of the stage to another while she “pursues” her male counterpart, played by Enrico Caruso.

When Rockwell leaves the obligation to chronologically recall his life and instead reflects on artistic inspiration, My Life as an Illustrator becomes more interesting. “It’s hard to say what one artist gets from studying the work of other artists,” he writes. “You start by following other artists — a spaniel. Then, if you’ve got it, you become yourself — a lion.” Rockwell’s first paid gig as an illustrator, for the 1912 Tell-Me-Why children’s stories are darker, more closely aligned (as they should be) to the subject matter. They were meant to explain things to children, to visualize fables. Long stories of rooming house life and the sudden suggestion of an orgy at the end of Chapter V make the reader wonder how much Rockwell was blushing as these words went to print. More interesting than these recollections are the stories of searching for child and animal models. Children were easy to manipulate, with promises of money, but animals were more complicated:

“But an old dog was the worst…flop-eared, mangy, and resolute. He’d plop down on the model stand, growling every time I approached…”

The numerous stories of favorite models are more indications (along with his deference to artistic influences) of Rockwell’s generosity, yet the reader still can’t help but get the sense that the story is dragging. Could these recollections have been better served in a separate volume, as captions to the pieces in which the models are featured? It takes a while for Rockwell to get us to his first Saturday Evening Post cover, 1916, but at that point the story picks up. His first marriage ends. He enters the Navy for WWI service. He reflects on attitudes gleamed from some of his military portrait models:

“The trait in Captain Ellis’ personality which I came into contact with most often was his vanity.”

Running through this long narrative is the history of the magazine business during that time. George Horace Lorimer was the editor of The Saturday Evening Post from 1899 to 1936, and again Rockwell defers to his presence while not really painting a full picture. What proves exciting are the moments when Rockwell approaches his boss with cover ideas. Rockwell would act out each individual premise for Lorimer. Of his boss, he writes: “I don’t want to give the impression that Mr. Lorimer was an infallible, monosyllabic tyrant. He wasn’t that. He had his quirks.” Longer sketches of artistic influences like Frank Leyendecker and his assistant, Beach, are weaved through these sections and while they might be important for their time, they can be a little distracting.

Was Rockwell a good businessman? It would seem so, at least as good as he could be for that time. “I’ve never liked long-term contracts,” he writes. “They’re like a bag of stones strapped to your neck. Every time you get an idea and start to execute it in the contract, like the bag of stones [it] remind[s] you that the idea will have to wait until the terms of the contract are fulfilled.” Advertisements and some stories behind them follow this chapter about life as an independent contractor, but the bigger story (which Rockwell doesn’t fully touch) seems to be about the clash between traditional and modern art. Who were his major antagonists? How did he fully respond to criticism that his work was “too safe”? Who was the anti-Rockwell in his world during his time? Perhaps it wasn’t for Rockwell to say, but his lack of a full-throated and unapologetic defense of the form proves frustrating.

Who were the models? Biographies will tell their stories, and testimony from the models themselves is always illuminating, but Rockwell’s recollections prove strongest. “Harry Seal,” he writes, “…was too much of a character to use very often. He had a round, fat body with a great bowl of a belly and spindly little arms and legs…” Of old men, Rockwell writes that they “…show their lives in their faces-the ups and downs and turn-arounds, the knocks and pushes…”

There’s no major epiphany in this book, and that can prove frustrating. The reader gets the impression that by 1960, in the run-up to this story being released into the world, Rockwell was a man out of time. He writes: “Today, much of the best illustration is done for children’s books.” None of the literary lions of the day were having their work illustrated, and Rockwell concludes that it’s because most action took place in the minds of their characters and “…you can’t make a picture of that.” There are many who would disagree with that conclusion, but the sentiment is understandable. Rockwell’s time was coming to a close.

By 1943, after the completion of “The Four Freedoms” and a fire in his studio, things begin to change. Rockwell writes about artist Jack Atherton, both friend and competitor. They formed a friendship in spite of the fact that for Atherton, “[a]ny painting, book, movie which was the least but sentimental would irritate him terribly…” In the same chapter, Rockwell writes of Grandma Moses, the famous American folk artist who would be dead within a year after the publication of this book: “She has a creative mind…She was intensely curious…Her pictures are never phony.”

It isn’t until the final chapter of this book, “I Paint another Post Cover”, that we get a style and pace that proves exciting and compelling. It’s a series of Journal entries, from 27 April – 19 August 1959, chronicling the genesis and development of “Family Tree“, one of Rockwell’s most famous covers. “Character is my chief concern when painting a head,” he writes. “I want to create an individual with a definite personality.”

Tom Rockwell’s Afterword takes pains to suggest that the awakening of his father’s social consciousness was probably only possible after leaving The Saturday Evening Post. “I can remember Pop being seriously interested in only two political issues,” he writes, “the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty…[and]…tolerance…” My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition certainly meets the expectations of its title. It’s most exciting when Rockwell reflects on his approaches as an artist, when he writes of his counsel from (and friendship with) famous therapist Erik Erikson.

If this edition is meant to rehabilitate Rockwell’s legacy and place him within his proper contextual place as a premiere American artist, it more than meets that mission. One of the more interesting possibilities comes in the 15 pp. chronology at the end of this edition. Consider the potential results this legendary meeting could have produced had it taken place:

“1974: David Bowie requests a cover portrait for his Young Americans album, but Rockwell declines the commission due to ill health.”

Somewhere, one hopes a hungry and creative young playwright is working on a one-act play in which this meeting actually took place over the course of a mutually compatible week in the schedules of these two great artists: Rockwell waxes rhapsodic about the glories of nostalgia, and Bowie asks the Master how it might feel to capture iconic moments in a bottle. Until that play is written and produced, My Adventures as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition should serve as a beautifully illustrated volume about the singular life and times of Norman Rockwell told in a conversational style by the man himself. It’s not completely effective as a literary text, but taken in context it’s a vital testimony about the life and times of an everyman American artist and illustrator who stayed true to his vision and published his story at the start of a decade (the 1960s) that would still produce some compelling work from a man still following his vision until his death in 1978.

RATING 8 / 10