The Magazine

‘Post’ Modernist

The overinterpretation of a great American illustrator.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By PETER TONGUETTE
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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.