Inside America’s Great Romance With Norman Rockwell

A new biography of the artist reveals the complex inner life of our greatest and most controversial illustrator

(Courtesy Deborah Solomon)
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The best painting in the series is probably Freedom from Want. It takes you into the dining room of a comfortable American home on Thanksgiving Day. The guests are seated at a long table, and no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the gray-haired grandma solemnly carrying it—do they even know she is there? Note the man in the lower right corner, whose wry face is pressed up against the picture plane. He has the air of a larksome uncle who perhaps is visiting from New York and doesn’t entirely buy into the rituals of Thanksgiving. He seems to be saying, “Isn’t this all just a bit much?” In contrast to traditional depictions of Thanksgiving dinner, which show the pre-meal as a moment of grace—heads lowered, praying hands raised to lips—Rockwell paints a Thanksgiving table at which no one is giving thanks. This, then, is the subject of his painting: not just the sanctity of American traditions, but the casualness with which Americans treat them.

The Four FreedomsFreedom from Want, along with Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship and Freedom from Fear—were published in four consecutive issues of the Post, starting on February 20, 1943, and they were instantly beloved. The Office of War Information quickly realized it had made an embarrassing mistake by rejecting them. It managed to fix the error: The OWI now arranged to print some 2.5 million Four Freedom posters and make the four original paintings the stellar centerpiece of a traveling war-bond sales campaign.

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms did not attempt to explain the war—the battles or the bloodshed, the dead and injured, the obliteration of towns. But the war wasn’t just about killing the enemy. It was also about saving a way of life. The paintings tapped into a world that seemed recognizable and real. Most everyone knew what it was like to attend a town meeting or say a prayer, to observe Thanksgiving or look in on sleeping children.


As Rockwell’s career flourished, Mary suffered the neglect that has befallen so many wives of artists, and she turned to alcohol for solace. Thinking he needed to be away from her, Rockwell headed to Southern California by himself in the fall of 1948. He spent a few months living out of a suitcase at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood as his wife lingered in snowbound Vermont, lighting cigarettes and stubbing them out in heavy ashtrays. That was the year that Christmas Homecoming, the defining image of toasty holiday togetherness, graced the cover of the Post. It is the only painting in which all five members of the Rockwell family appear. A Christmas-day gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a son (Jarvis), whose back is turned toward the viewer. He receives a joyous hug from his mother (Mary Rockwell) as a roomful of relatives and friends look on with visible delight. In reality, there was no family gathering for the Rockwells that Christmas, only distance and discontent.

In 1951, Mary Rockwell turned for help to the Austen Riggs Center, a small psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that catered to patients who could afford months and even years of care. She was treated by Dr. Robert Knight, the center’s medical director. In coming months, while Mary was an inpatient at Riggs, Rockwell spoke regularly with Dr. Knight to discuss her progress. Through his conversations with the doctor, he became aware of mood-lifting drugs and ways to tackle his own depression. He started taking Dexamyl, a small green pill of the combination sort, half dexedrine, half barbiturate, wholly addictive.

So too, he became interested in entering therapy himself. Dr. Knight referred him to an analyst on his staff: Erik Erikson, a German émigré who had been an artist in his wandering youth and was one of the most highly regarded psychoanalysts in the country. Rockwell’s bookkeeper remembers an afternoon when the artist casually mentioned that he was thinking of relocating to Stockbridge for the winter. By Monday, Rockwell had moved, and in fact would never return to Arlington, except to sell his house a year later.

Settling in Stockbridge, in October 1953, Rockwell acquired a studio right on Main Street, one flight above a meat market. The Austen Riggs Center was practically across the street, and Rockwell went there twice a week to meet with Erikson. Much of what Erikson did in the therapeutic hour resembled counseling, as opposed to analysis. For Rockwell, the immediate crisis was his marriage. He bemoaned his shared life with an alcoholic whose drinking, he said, made her petulant and critical of his work. Rockwell was a dependent man who tended to lean on men, and in Erikson he found reliable support. “All that I am, all that I hope to be, I owe to Mr. Erikson,” he once wrote.

Rockwell was still prone to extreme nervousness and even panic attacks. In May 1955, invited to dine at the White House, at the invitation of President Eisenhower, he flew down to Washington with a Dexamyl in his jacket pocket. He was worried he’d be tongue-tied at the “stag party,” whose guests, including Leonard Firestone of rubber-tire fame and Doubleday editor in chief Ken McCormick, were the sort of self-made, influential businessmen whose conversation Eisenhower preferred to that of politicians. The story Rockwell told about that evening goes as follows: Before dinner, standing in the bathroom of his room at the Statler Hotel, he accidentally dropped his Dexamyl pill in the sink. To his dismay, it rolled down the sink, forcing him to face the president and sup on oxtail soup, roast beef and lime sherbet ring in an anxiously unmedicated state.

By now he had been an illustrator for four decades, and he continued to favor scenes culled from everyday life. In Stockbridge, he found his younger models at the school near his house. Escorted by the principal, he would peer into classrooms, in search of boys with the right allotment of freckles, the right expression of openness. “He would come during our lunch hour and pull you into the hall,” recalled Eddie Locke, who first modeled for Rockwell as an 8-year-old. Locke is among the few who can claim the distinction of “posing somewhat in the nude,” as the Saturday Evening Post reported in a bizarrely sanguine item on March 15, 1958.


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