- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

Do we really need a 500-plus-page biography of Norman Rockwell? The answer Is no … and yes. No because it's a rare life that merits such extended treatment usually only one of world-historical proportions. Despite its length (he died in 1978 at the age of 84), Rockwell's wasn't one such. He was born, he painted, he died. Finis.
On the other hand, with Rockwell lately being celebrated as some sort of genius manque, there's long been a need for someone to tell his story undistorted by the desire to see him either as an American folk figure or as has lately been the case a fine artist on the order of Thomas Eakins masquerading as a commercial one.
Happily this is what Laura Claridge has now done. With "Norman Rockwell: A Life" she has given us a well researched, wide ranging biography likely to be the definitive work of its kind for some time to come. Her Rockwell is a man who yearned mightily to be a fine artist but could never be more than an illustrator and knew it; whose Saturday Evening Post covers and other works served as a kind of coded autobiography.
On the surface, Rockwell led a charmed life almost from the beginning. As a child he discovered a gift for drawing and knew from very early on he wanted to be a magazine illustrator. He wasn't 20 before he was art editor of Boy's Life magazine. He drew his first Saturday Evening Post cover in 1916, establishing a relationship that was to last, off and on, for over a half a century. By 1919 he was a national figure to the point that he was even endorsing products. Myriad commissions came his way, for calendars, advertising, book illustration among other things, in an overwhelming stream. And he responded to them with homespun images of innocence and wholesomeness: warm, welcoming households filled with loving, stolid adults and children who when they misbehaved were merely good-natured scamps.
The reality, however, was less Saturday Evening Post than "American Gothic" the Tennessee Williams rather than the Grant Wood variety. According to the author, Rockwell grew up emotionally neutered and was never, as an adult, able to find the kind of love he'd been denied as a child. His art became the vehicle through which to create the idyllic childhood had never had. Rockwell's mother was a self-centered harridan who cold not offer her children love or approbation but only criticism; Rockwell's first wife divorced him after 14 years of marriage; his second wife became an alcoholic and a depressive who required electroshock treatments. Rockwell himself suffered debilitating depressions all his life, even contemplating suicide at more than one time.
As it turns out, there's an enormous, almost comical irony in the fact that Stockbridge, Mass., site of his last home (and now a Rockwell museum) is considered "Rockwell country" embodying everything the artist represented in his work. The reason he moved there was because it was close by the mental institution his wife went to for treatment.
Reading this sad chronicle, one at first suspects it is an attempt by the author to launch another salvo on behalf of the Rockwell-is-really-a-fine-artist forces who in the last few years have been striving so mightily to have us believe that he is really the equal of Eakins, if not Rembrandt. (This month, a multi-city Rockwell retrospective arrives at its organizing institution, New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which let us not forget was founded in the 1930s as a museum of abstract art.) After all, since nearly every great artist has wrestled with inner demons (think Van Gogh), doesn't it follow that because Rockwell had more than his share, he must be a great artist, too?
Fortunately, the author avoids such temptations. She makes it clear that he was what he was, an illustrator's illustrator, a man who by his own admission could never go deeper than surfaces and appearances and who, despite living within striking distance of New York and taking two trips to Paris, could never bring himself to come to grips with the art and ideas of his time.
But rather than using this to indict Rockwell, it becomes Exhibit A in the book's subtext: why Rockwell attained and held such popularity. Any number of developments in magazine journalism should have put paid to Rockwell's career between the wars or soon after, ensuring that he die a forgotten man. One was the rise of photography. An equal number of social changes should have done the same thing, for example the counterculture in the '60s. Instead, his passing was national news.
The reason, argues the author, was an extraordinarily fortuitous meeting of the man and the moment. Rockwell's escape into an idyllic world of childhood innocence via his work was, as it turns out, just the thing the country at large needed to cope with the upheavals of modern life. Rockwell's art satisfied a nostalgia for the country over the city, for a world uncorrupted by war, depression, or social disruptions. Never mind what their lives were actually like, readers could look at his covers and see a the world not as it was but as they wished it to be. A final irony is that in fulfilling this need, Rockwell the illustrator attained a stature and importance few fine artists ever attain.
There's long been a need for a proper life of Rockwell, if only to counteract the disingenuousness of his self-serving, posthumously published autobiography. Now that we have one, though there's no need for another. This well examined life is not worth revisiting.

Eric Gibson is deputy editor of the Leisure & Arts Page of the Wall Street Journal.



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