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 opening reception was held at Danenberg’s on October 21, 1968. Dressed in his customary tweedy jacket, with a plaid bow tie, Rockwell arrived at the reception half an hour late and, by most accounts, felt embarrassed by the fuss. The show, which stayed up for three weeks, was ignored by most art critics, including those from the New York Times. But artists who had never thought about Rockwell now found much to admire. Willem de Kooning, who was then in his mid-60s and acclaimed as the country’s leading abstract painter, dropped by the show unannounced. Danenberg recalled that he especially admired Rockwell’s Connoisseur, the one in which an elderly gentleman contemplates a Pollock drip painting. “Square inch by square inch,” de Kooning announced in his accented English, “it’s better than Jackson!” Hard to know if the comment was intended to elevate Rockwell or demote Pollock.

With the rise of Pop Art, Rockwell was suddenly in line with a younger generation of painters whose work had much in common with his—the Pop artists had returned realism to avant-garde art after the half-century reign of abstraction. Warhol, too, came in to see the gallery show. “He was fascinated,” Danenberg later recalled. “He said that Rockwell was a precursor of the hyper-realists.” In the next few years, Warhol purchased two works by Rockwell for his private collection—a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, and a print of Santa Claus, who, like Jackie, was known by his first name and no doubt qualified in Warhol’s star-struck brain as a major celebrity.

Rockwell’s art, compared with that of the Pop artists, was actually popular. But in interviews, Rockwell always declined to describe himself as an artist of any sort. When asked, he would invariably demur, insisting he was an illustrator. You can see the comment as a display of humility, or you can see it as a defensive feint (he couldn’t be rejected by the art world if he rejected it first). But I think he meant the claim literally. While many 20th-century illustrators thought of commercial art as something you did to support a second, little-paying career as a fine artist, Rockwell didn’t have a separate career as a fine artist. He only had the commercial part, the illustrations for magazines and calendars and advertisements.

Rockwell died in 1978, at age 84, after a long struggle with dementia and emphysema. By now, it seems a bit redundant to ask whether his paintings are art. Most of us no longer believe that an invisible red velvet rope separates museum art from illustration. No one could reasonably argue that every abstract painting in a museum collection is aesthetically superior to Rockwell’s illustrations, as if illustration were a lower, unevolved life- form without the intelligence of the more prestigious mediums.

The truth is that every genre produces its share of marvels and masterpieces, works that endure from one generation to the next, inviting attempts at explication and defeating them in short order. Rockwell's work has manifested far more staying power than that of countless abstract painters who were hailed in his lifetime, and one suspects it is here for the ages.


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