An absorbing biography detailing the public and private hazards of being America’s favorite painter.
Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) may seem an unusual subject for Solomon, who previously explored the abstract universes of Joseph Cornell (Utopia Parkway, 1997) and Jackson Pollock (1987) and “grew up gazing at a Helen Frankenthaler poster” in her bedroom. In her latest life story, the author is both scourge and defender. On a personal level, she doesn’t much like Rockwell—and he does come across as chilly. Wholly devoted to his work and given to bouts of depression, he was remote from his family, his friends and most of his subjects; even the accidental death of a young boy who posed for him drew little emotion. “Phobic about dirt and germs,” writes the author, “he cleaned his studio several times a day.” Although there’s no evidence that he was gay, he much preferred the company of men and boys in both life and art. His first wife fled, his second wife drank herself into an early grave, and his third (and happiest) wife slept in another room. His life was at odds with his image; he drew covers for a magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, which he couldn’t stand and was the official artist for the Boy Scouts of America even though he knew or cared little about Scouting. Was he a mere illustrator, as the critics claimed, or a skilled visual storyteller in the tradition of the great Renaissance painters he worshipped? For Solomon, his paintings are representational Rorschachs of a lonely life, dramas about being an outsider, essays on the act of watching—whether they involve diners staring at an old woman as she prays, a town-hall crowd looking at a speaker or a young girl gazing in a mirror. Is looking at a Rockwell less fulfilling than looking at a de Kooning? Solomon doesn’t think so; neither did de Kooning.
A sobering but ultimately sympathetic portrait balanced by the author’s critical sense and buoyed by her engaging style.