I did not grow up with a Norman Rockwell poster hanging in my bedroom. 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. As an art history major, and later as an art critic, I was among a generation that was taught to think of modern art as a kind of luminous, cleanly swept room. Abstract painting, our professors said, jettisoned the accumulated clutter of 500 years of subject matter in an attempt to reduce art to pure form.
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Rockwell? Oh God. He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values Modernism sought to topple. His long career overlapped with the key art movements of the 20th century, from Cubism to Minimalism, but while most avant-gardists were heading down a one-way street toward formal reduction, Rockwell was driving in the opposite direction—he was putting stuff into art. His paintings have human figures and storytelling, snoozing mutts, grandmothers, clear-skinned Boy Scouts and wood-paneled station wagons. They have policemen, attics and floral wallpaper. Moreover, most of them began life as covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a weekly general-interest magazine that paid Rockwell for his work, and paychecks, frankly, were another Modernist no-no. Real artists were supposed to live hand-to-mouth, preferably in walk-up apartments in Greenwich Village.
The scathing condescension directed at Rockwell during his lifetime eventually made him a prime candidate for revisionist therapy, which is to say, an art-world hug. He received one posthumously, in the fall of 2001, when Robert Rosenblum, the brilliant Picasso scholar and art-world contrarian in chief, presided over a Rockwell exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It represented a historic collision between mass taste and museum taste, filling the pristine spiral of the Gugg with Rockwell’s plebeian characters, the barefoot country boys and skinny geezers with sunken cheeks and Rosie the Riveter sitting triumphantly on a crate, savoring her white-bread sandwich.
The great subject of his work was American life—not the frontier version, with its questing for freedom and romance, but a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the 18th century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter.
Because America was a nation of immigrants who lacked universally shared traditions, it had to invent some. So it came up with Thanksgiving, baseball—and Norman Rockwell.
Who was Rockwell? A lean, bluish man with a Dunhill pipe, his features arranged into a gentle mask of neighborliness. But behind the mask lay anxiety and fear of his anxiety. On most days, he felt lonesome and loveless. His relationships with his parents, wives and three sons were uneasy, sometimes to the point of estrangement. He eschewed organized activity. He declined to go to church.
Although Rockwell is often described as a portrayer of the nuclear family, this is a misconception. Of his 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, only three portray a conventional family of parents and two or more children (Going and Coming, 1947; Walking to Church, 1953; and Easter Morning, 1959). Rockwell culled the majority of his figures from an imaginary assembly of boys and fathers and grandfathers who convene in places where women seldom intrude. Boyishness is presented in his work as a desirable quality, even in girls. Rockwell’s female figures tend to break from traditional gender roles and assume masculine guises. Typically, a redheaded girl with a black eye sits in the hall outside the principal’s office, grinning despite the reprimand awaiting her.
Although he married three times and raised a family, Rockwell acknowledged that he didn’t pine for women. They made him feel imperiled. He preferred the nearly constant companionship of men whom he perceived as physically strong. He sought out friends who went fishing in the wilderness and trekked up mountains, men with mud on their shoes, daredevils who were not prim and careful the way he was. “It may have represented Rockwell’s solution to the problem of feeling wimpish and small,” maintains Sue Erikson Bloland, a psychotherapist and the daughter of pioneering psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whom Rockwell consulted in the 1950s. “He had a desire to connect with other men and partake of their masculinity, because of a sense of deficiency in himself.”
Revealingly, his earliest known work portrays an elderly man ministering to a bedridden boy. The charcoal drawing has never been reproduced until now. Rockwell was 17 years old when he made it, and for years it languished in storage at the Art Students League, which had purchased it from the artist when he was a student there. Consequently, the drawing was spared the fate of innumerable early Rockwells that were lost over the years or destroyed in a disastrous fire that consumed one of his barn-studios in later life.
Not long ago, I contacted the League to ask if it still owned the drawing and how I could see it; it was arranged that the work would be driven into Manhattan from a New Jersey warehouse. It was incredible to see—a marvel of precocious draftsmanship and a shockingly macabre work for an artist known for his folksy humor. Rockwell undertook it as a class assignment. Technically, it’s an illustration of a scene from “The Deserted Village,” the 18th-century pastoral poem by Oliver Goldsmith. It takes you into a small, tenebrous, candlelit room where a sick boy lies supine in bed, a sheet pulled up to his chin. A village preacher, shown from the back in his long coat and white wig, kneels at the boy’s side. A grandfather clock looms dramatically in the center of the composition, infusing the scene with a time-is-ticking ominousness. Perhaps taking his cue from Rembrandt, Rockwell is able to extract great pictorial drama from the play of candlelight on the back wall of the room, a glimpse of radiance in the unreachable distance.