A brilliant biography that affords considerable insight into the complicated, worried mind of the masterly illustrator.
Norman Rockwell (1894–1977) believed in painting as an expression not only of cultural values—including, in his case, patriotism, community, and ordinary decency—but also as a means of telling quiet stories about life, and his huge body of work reflected his belief that “the idea itself probably is the most important element of the entire illustration.” Still, writes Claridge (Tamara de Lempicka, 1999), Rockwell was not without his sense of irony, and even his subversive side; for one thing, as Claridge notes, he undid a long tradition of depicting women with “arched eyebrows, enlarged eyes, no shadows on the face, no nostrils, Cupid’s bow mouth arranged in a sort of suppressed yawn” and replaced it with an insistent narrative realism in which not-exactly-beautiful people figure prominently. Though Rockwell enjoyed early success as an illustrator for Boys’ Life and the Saturday Evening Post, earning a handsome living as an artist while still in his teens, he wrestled with fears that he was a failure and became obsessed with money, which caused him constantly to make commitments to produce work that he could not possibly meet. Still, he did produce, by Claridge’s count, more than 4,000 paintings. For all his remarkable output, and although contemporaries like Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol praised his work, Rockwell was dismissed by contemporary critics as an old-fashioned hack, criticism he probably agreed with. Claridge’s exegesis of paintings such as Playing Checkers points to his very real skills while pointing out characteristic but not accidental shortcomings: “The careful and complex spatial composition, the unsettling use of vivid scarlets and scalding yellow, the brilliantly painted surfaces,” she writes, “all these are, finally, unspoiled by Rockwell’s typical compulsion to wrench at least one character’s expression into caricature, in the name of quick access to a story line.”
Claridge’s biography is timely, accompanying a widespread critical reappraisal of Rockwell’s work. Though there will still be those who sneer at him as a propagandist on canvas, her life makes a convincing case for Rockwell as genius and original.