The overinterpretation of a great American illustrator.
Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By PETER TONGUETTE
Like the music of Virgil Thomson and the dances of George Balanchine, the paintings of Norman Rockwell are enlivened by a conspicuously transparent species of Americana. They also had the good fortune to make their debuts before irony was turned loose on the land. There was no mocking impulse behind Thomson tossing a dash of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” into The River, and Balanchine was dead serious when he used a flag as part of the set design in Stars and Stripes.
‘Saying Grace’ (1951)
Similarly, Norman Rockwell’s “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves” (as Gerald Ford put it upon honoring him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom) were plain in their veneration of the cardinal virtues. Consider his splendid Saturday Evening Post cover Saying Grace (1951), in which a little boy takes the lead from his grandmother in bowing his head and interlocking his fingers, before they treat themselves to lunch. Since the pair is seated in a bustling diner, the picture’s point is the simultaneously modest and proud character of their piety: modest because they are praying at all, and proud because they do it in front of a watchful crowd.
That is not good enough, however, for Deborah Solomon, the author of a maddening new biography of Rockwell. Solomon handles Rockwell’s life and career well enough—nimbly chronicling his three marriages as well as the dynamics of the midcentury magazine business—but her critical takes on his work leave much to be desired. As the author of previous books on Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, Solomon writes intelligently about Rockwell’s gently realistic style, but she cannot conceal her embarrassment when it comes to the subjects he so fussily molded after real life (using models as well as photographs).
In the case of Saying Grace, Solomon starts off on a sure footing, praising the way the God-fearing lunchers invite a “ballet of gazes” from onlookers, and nicely describing the grandmother’s “daisy-bedecked straw hat.” But she won’t leave well enough alone. In the upper-right-hand corner of the picture is the tail end of a “RESTAURANT” sign, affixed to a window and with the letters reversed. To Solomon, these letters are of great significance: “A smattering of backward, Cubist-style lettering on the window—‘TNARU’—spells the end of the word restaurant while containing the anagram UN-ART and suggesting the self-mocking message U R an ANT.”
It gets worse. To most observers, Rockwell’s popular Post cover Girl at Mirror (1954) depicts a preteen perched before a mirror, her eyes presumably darting back and forth—comparing and contrasting—between her image and that of Jane Russell, whose likeness appears in a movie magazine. But to Solomon, there are strange, unseen depths to this witty portrait of youthful star-gazing: “Deploying the kind of self-referential cleverness today known as meta, Rockwell has given us a magazine image about a magazine image.” But hasn’t Solomon suggested earlier that Rockwell is the very opposite of clever? “He is a maker of clear pictures that require no antenna,” she writes—riffing on The New Television Set (1949)—but apparently they are in need of explication, courtesy of Deborah Solomon.
The trouble is that many of Solomon’s observations, however well-intended, read like strained attempts to make Rockwell appear less old-fashioned than he really was. For example, Solomon laments that the betrothed couple in the lovely Post cover Marriage License (1955) look “happy to be playing their assigned gender roles” as they appear opposite a disheveled clerk to begin their life together. Such language is disorienting when applied to this sweet evocation of a time before no-fault divorce: Would the couple in the picture even know what a “gender role” is? As the book goes on, the distance widens between what Rockwell’s pictures show and what Solomon says they show. When she writes that the suede-jacket-wearing man at the center of Freedom of Speech (1942) is “unattached and sexually available, unbuttoned and unzipped,” she sounds as though she is free-associating. True, she bases her inference on the fact that he wears no wedding band—most men did not in 1942—but who would ponder this paean to the dignity of self-expression and wonder about the man’s marital status? At least Solomon does not suggest he log onto Match.com after saying his piece.
A few of the pictures discussed prove resistant to Solomon’s interpretations. She cannot muster any enthusiasm for the “didactic” Freedom of Worship (1942)—another painting in Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series—because its tightly bunched profiles of a cluster of religiously observant people makes its point too clearly for her, “leav[ing] no place for your eye or your imagination to wander.” Throughout, there is ample proof of Solomon’s own meandering imagination. This has to be the first biography of Norman Rockwell to quote Susan Sontag on the subject of photography and Samuel Beckett on the subject of the duties of contemporary artists. These extraneous, distracting references do not come as a surprise, however, since it is evident from the first page that Solomon will have a hard time writing about Rockwell without tarting him up: “I did not grow up with a Norman Rockwell poster hanging in my bedroom,” she confesses in the introduction. “I grew up gazing at a Helen Frankenthaler poster, with bright, runny rivulets of orange and yellow bordering a rectangle whose center remained daringly blank.”
Is it any wonder that Solomon makes much of the inconsequential fact that Andy Warhol purchased two Rockwell paintings and a print? She is too eager to yoke Rockwell to figures who might appeal to her sensibilities but who had little to do with the subject of her book. Absentmindedly, Rockwell misremembered the name of one of his dogs in an interview with Edward R. Murrow, a meaningless anecdote that Solomon goes to town with. “We call her Lolito—Lolita,” Rockwell tells Murrow, to which Solomon brusquely adds: “None of his children recall a dog named Lolita.” Naturally, two full paragraphs are devoted to the heretofore unrecognized connection between Norman Rockwell and Vladimir Nabokov; but the best she can offer in the way of evidence (since the men did not know each other) is a minuscule reference to Rockwell in Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which, she speculates optimistically, Rockwell was “surely” familiar with. (And what of the phantom dog? Solomon concludes, lamely, that “surely he had read Lolita, or read about it.”)
By the time we reach a late chapter that feebly links Norman Rockwell with Arlo Guthrie, of all people, we have realized that Solomon is trying too hard. So what if they “met at least a few times,” or if a police officer who tormented Guthrie posed for a few of Rockwell’s pictures? When Solomon writes that Rockwell’s stunning view of the town where he and Guthrie both resided, in Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (1967), “is as much a symbol of the sixties as Alice’s Restaurant, if only because it captures an America on the brink of vanishing,” she is straining for a connection where there is none. The excision of such superfluous asides not only would have made for a brisker read, but it would have brought the book’s cliché count down.
Peter Tonguette is at work on a book about Peter Bogdanovich.