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How Norman Rockwell held a mirror up to American ambitions and common values

November 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Art historians have often dismissed Norman Rockwell as merely a commercial illustration artist. But Deborah Solomon, author of "American Mirror," says Rockwell "mirrored what (Americans) wanted to be" and gave the nation a common culture. Solomon joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss Rockwell's influence and legacy.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: And we close with the life and art of Norman Rockwell. Jeffrey Brown recently sat down in our New York studio with the author of a new biography that sheds light on how the painter shaped America’s image of itself.

Deborah Solomon, welcome.

DEBORAH SOLOMON, “American Mirror”: Jeff, hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start where — where you yourself start, which is this idea that writing a biography of Norman Rockwell, you say when you were starting out as an art critic would have seemed impossible, right, to take him seriously?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Well, I come from an art historical background.

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And art historians, of course, always treated Rockwell as a lowly calendar artist or as a kind of toxic culture polluter. He certainly was not part of the canon of art history. And in that sense, when I took him on, I went over to the other side.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, you said he was viewed as a cornball and a square.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Correct. Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s in part because he was working for magazines, right?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: He spent most of his career working for “The Saturday Evening Post,” which was based in Philadelphia, making magazine covers. That, of course, was his specialty. He never tried to be a fine artist.

He didn’t exhibit in galleries or try to have a career apart from his magazine career.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things you do, though, is set the context. When we say magazines now, it’s different from what he was doing, because that was — that was the mass culture of the time. This was — this was — everybody saw his work.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Exactly.

When he began his career, in 1916, there was no TV, obviously. There was no radio. And “The Saturday Evening Post” almost created mass culture in America. It was one magazine that everyone could read all across the country, people who had nothing in common. People — an immigrant on the Lower East Side working in a shoe factory and a farmer in Montana suddenly had Norman Rockwell in common.

And it was just baseball, Norman Rockwell and Thanksgiving. That’s American…

JEFFREY BROWN: That was — that’s how America came to be seen in same way.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: We needed common — a common culture, and he provided it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The work is famously optimistic, humorous, positive. The man that you present is not.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: No, no.

If artists were judged by the amount they suffered, he would certainly be up there with the best of them. He led pretty much classic tortured artist life, in the sense that I think he was driven in large part by dissatisfaction and the desire to always get it right, and feeling that he hadn’t gotten it right.

In other words, he was a perfectionist and was very critical of himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that led to depression. It led to therapy. You write about his work with the famous therapist Erikson.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Right.

Rockwell moved to Stockbridge in 1953, in fact, to begin therapy with Erik Erikson. Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is seen as the quintessential New England town of little shops and grazing cows.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of Norman Rockwell.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: And of Norman Rockwell.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: But, when he moved there, it really was a psychoanalytic center of the United States, because the Austen Riggs Center was there. And it — and it drew a lot of prominent doctors.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say he was a perfectionist — and we started by saying that people didn’t — some in the art — many in the art world didn’t take him seriously, was that part of it? How did he see himself? Did he see himself as an artist, as a fine artist, as a would-be great artist?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: He saw himself as an illustrator. And he worshipped the illustrators who came before him, most of whom we don’t know today, such as Howard Pyle, painter of pirates, who’s been largely forgotten.

But he really wanted to will himself into what he saw as the great tradition of drawn illustration. Does he transcend that category? I would say yes. I think he really throws a monkey wrench into the whole process of classification, because he was an illustrator, but his work also has held up over the years, and for me has the mystery and staying power of true art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about one specific work of art, one of the most famous, right, “Freedom from Want,” a famous Thanksgiving painting.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Right. That is absolutely my favorite Rockwell.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your favorite? Why? Why?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Well, absolutely. Absolutely, it’s my favorite — well, for many reasons.

One is that traditional portrayals of Thanksgiving tend to have people giving thanks at a table. And at Rockwell’s table, no one is giving thanks. Everybody is kind of talking and animated and not looking at the old couple who are valiantly carrying in this humongous turkey to the table.

And I think that he kind of captures both an American tradition and the fact that Americans can laugh at their own traditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there’s more to it than just saying, here’s the American table?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Exactly. It’s not a pious image. It captures some of the laughter that does take place in the midst of our most sacred rituals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what you mean by American mirror? I’m curious about your title, because is it a mirror of America or is it, I don’t know, reflecting it in different — now I’m curious because of what you said about that painting.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: No, I don’t think he — I don’t think he drew a literal mimetic portrait of America.

He wasn’t a reporter or a journalist. He wasn’t taking notes. I think he very much created a freestanding parallel universe that expressed what America desired to be after the Depression and during World War II and at a time when we really did share common values, and didn’t have government shutdowns.

It was a time of enormous solidarity in this country. And people liked to believe that Americans were a little better than everyone else, not because they had more, but because they were just better people. They were moral. They were nice. They were considerate.

So, he created, basically, a portrait of America and mirrored what we wanted it to be, not what we actually were, is how I would answer that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

“American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.”

Deborah Solomon, thanks so much.

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Thank you. Thanks so much.