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 comment refers to Before the Shot, which takes us into a doctor’s office as a boy stands on a wooden chair, his belt unfastened, his corduroy trousers lowered to reveal his pale backside. As he worriedly awaits an injection, he bends over, ostensibly to scrutinize the framed diploma hanging on the wall and reassure himself that the doctor is sufficiently qualified to perform this delicate procedure. (That’s the joke.)

Before the Shot remains the only Rockwell cover in which a boy exposes his unclad rear. Locke recalls posing for the picture in a doctor’s office on an afternoon when the doctor was gone. Rockwell asked the boy to drop his pants and had his photographer take the pictures. “He instructed me to pose how he wanted it,” Locke recalled. “It was a little uncomfortable, but you just did it, that’s all.”

One night, Rockwell surprised the boy’s family by stopping by their house unannounced. He was carrying the finished painting and apparently needed to do a bit more research. “He asked for the pants,” Locke recalled years later. “This is what my parents told me. He asked for the pants to see if he had gotten the color right. They’re kind of a grey-green.” It’s an anecdote that reminds you of both his fastidious realism and the sensuality he attached to fabric and clothing.


In August 1959, Mary Rockwell died suddenly, never waking up from an afternoon nap. Her death certificate lists the cause as “coronary heart disease.” Her friends and acquaintances wondered whether Mary, who was 51, had taken her own life. At Rockwell’s request, no autopsy was performed; the quantity of drugs in her bloodstream remains unknown. Rockwell spoke little about his wife in the weeks and months following her death. After three turbulent decades of marriage, Mary had been eradicated from his life without warning. “He didn’t talk about his feelings,” recalled his son Peter. “He did some of his best work during that period. He did some fabulous paintings. I think we were all relieved by her death.”

The summer of 1960 arrived, and Senator John F. Kennedy was anointed by the Democratic National Convention as its candidate. Rockwell had already begun his portrait of him and visited the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. At the time, Kennedy’s advisers were concerned that the 43-year-old candidate was too young to seek the office of the presidency. He implored Rockwell, in his portrait for the cover of the Post, to make him look “at least” his age. Rockwell was charmed by the senator, believing there was already a golden aura about him.

Rockwell had also met with the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon. As much as he admired President Eisenhower, Rockwell did not care for his vice president. In his studio, he worked on the portraits of Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon side by side. Scrupulously objective, he made sure that neither candidate flashed a millimeter more of a smile than the other. It was tedious work, not least because Nixon’s face posed unique challenges. As Peter Rockwell recalled, “My father said the problem with doing Nixon is that if you make him look nice, he doesn’t look like Nixon anymore.”

In January 1961, Kennedy was inaugurated, and Rockwell, a widower living in a drafty house with his dog Pitter, listened to the ceremony on his radio. For several months, Erik Erikson had been exhorting him to join a group and get out of the house. Rockwell signed up for “Discovering Modern Poetry,” which met weekly at the Lenox Library. The spring term started that March. The group leader, Molly Punderson, had clear blue eyes and wore her white hair pinned up in a bun. A former English teacher at the Milton Academy Girls’ School, she had recently retired and moved back to her native Stockbridge. Her great ambition was to write a grammar book. Molly knew a class clown when she saw one. “He was no great student,” she recalled of Rockwell. “He skipped classes, made amusing remarks, and livened up the sessions.”

At last Rockwell had found his feminine ideal: an older schoolteacher who had never lived with a man, and who in fact had lived with a female history teacher in a so-called Boston marriage for decades. When Molly moved into Rockwell’s home, she set up her bedroom in a small room across the hall from his. However unconventional the arrangement, and despite the apparent absence of sexual feeling, their relationship flourished. She satisfied his desire for intelligent companionship and required little in return. Once, asked by an interviewer to name the woman she most admired, she cited Jane Austen, explaining: “She contented herself with wherever she found herself.”

They were married on a crisp fall day, in October 1961, at St. Paul’s Church in Stockbridge. Molly arrived in Rockwell’s life in time to help him endure his final moments at the Post. He hinted at his fear of decline and obsolescence in his 1961 masterpiece, The Connoisseur. The painting takes us inside an art museum, where an older gentleman is shown from the back as he holds his fedora in his hand and contemplates a “drip” painting by Jackson Pollock. He’s a mystery man whose face remains hidden and whose thoughts are not available to us. Perhaps he is a stand-in for Rockwell, contemplating not only an abstract painting, but the inevitable generational change that will lead to his own extinction. Rockwell had nothing against the Abstract Expressionists. “If I were young, I would paint that way myself,” he said in a brief note that ran inside the magazine.


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