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.
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.