How Norman Rockwell Captured the Inner Life of a Nation

His tableaux of American innocence aren't as simple as they seem.

Kevin Christy

The boy sits cross-legged on the floor, pajama-fresh and waist-deep in torn wrapping paper. Above his head, on the tree, a weak galaxy of Christmas lights; to his right, the ruddy, old-timey radiations of a blazing hearth. But his face is otherwise illumined: out of the flat object he holds in his hands there rises a weird, disinterred glow, as if from some vault of alien bones. He gazes into it. It gazes into him. His lower lip hangs, blue-cold and glossy; his eyes have the luster of enchantment. Watching from the doorway—because there are always watchers in the picture, proxies for the artist—are his parents. Mom looks gratified; Dad looks worried. Title of painting: The iPad He’s Been Asking For.

What would Norman Rockwell be painting now, if he were with us and in his sad-eyed, penetrative prime? Gay weddings and hockey fights; piquant scenes at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through window; the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act, with particular attention to the round-faced child at the president’s elbow. Rockwell was as American as the Grateful Dead. He painted America, nothing but, and the fascination of his story—newly told by Deborah Solomon in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell—lies in the genius by which this rather strange, marginal-feeling man contrived to represent the inner life of a mass audience. So complete was the transference, indeed, that the name Norman Rockwell remains to this day synonymous with the vanished health of the republic: youthful vim, family values, “a simpler time”—the kinds of thing that make Glenn Beck burst into tears.

The secret, clearly, is that Rockwell’s productions, his tableaux of American innocence, are not simple at all. If they were, we would have forgotten them by now. Instead they are loaded with unconscious energy, with nervous hum and erogenous gleam. The grotesque, like some goblin field of gravity, seems to bend and warp even his most conventional subjects. Shiny noses, stringy throats, eyes too avid or too dull; a freakish quiddity in his rendering of shoes, elbows, baskets, bricks. Which to us, post-Freudians that we all inevitably are, can mean only one thing: repression! Rockwell’s preference for the company of boy models and rugged apprentices over that of, say, women is a recurring note in Solomon’s book. (“Draws Boys Not Girls” was the headline of a 1923 Boston Globe article.) He married unhappily, twice, and more happily a third time. And although his demons were not very sulphurous, not very rock-and-roll, they were demons nonetheless: shame, awkwardness, a cyclical sense of his own artistic insufficiency, and an enormous, hellacious self-imposed pressure to get everything right. If he was gay, he was never—on the evidence currently available—actively so. Solomon’s point is more that he wasn’t gay, he wasn’t anything. He hovered fraughtly, jamming his canvases with inference. Of his habit of placing a dog, person, hatbox, or similar item in the foreground of his paintings, between the viewer and the action, she writes: “It is one of the tensions in Rockwell’s art. He paints objects with the kind of fastidious realism intended to bring you closer to the touchable, handleable world. But then he paints a barricade in the foreground to keep you from touching. He cannot allow himself to touch what he wants.”

Walk the streets of any American city, and you will be amazed at the Rockwellian scenarios that immediately present themselves.

Was Rockwell a realist? A hyper-realist? A fabulist? An artistic reactionary, or a commercial wizard whose success in self-branding and media manipulation anticipated Andy Warhol? Modernism, the bomb in the museum, went off at the beginning of his career, and he was forced to find his place among the fragments. In 1913, as Rockwell was painstakingly mastering his craft with the sober draftsmen of the Art Students League, on West 57th Street in New York City, the Armory Show arrived at 25th and Lexington: Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, the dissolution of the visual plane, the vanishing floor of the universe. Rockwell absorbed these advances, even allowing himself a wistful sojourn in radical Paris, and went the other way—in the direction of construction, compression, and cramming the frame with meaning. Jackson Pollock would be his art-historical Other, the Hyde to his Jekyll. Later in life, Rockwell would say that if he were young again he’d paint that way too.

But Rockwell was also from the future, in his way. There was something cutting-edge in Rockwell’s high-polish micro-anecdotes, his insanely overdeveloped sight gags—such as 1962’s The Connoisseur, in which a well-dressed gent, his back to us, stands like a pillar of salt before the orgasmic splatter of an abstract-expressionist painting. Inside modernism’s flying-apart was a countervailing impulse toward convergence and concentration: Ezra Pound, banging on about the Chinese ideogram, had sought a poetry that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” and Henri Cartier-Bresson had made “the decisive moment”—the sudden intersection of previously unrelated energies—part of the liturgy of photography. Rockwell’s decisive moments, by contrast, were fictional. He conceived them alone (Solomon writes that “the gestation of ideas was arduous”) and then fabricated them, with extraordinary care, from photographs, props, and paraphernalia, the chin of this model and the arm of that one. It was labor-intensive, to say the least. To render correctly the girl’s black eye in 1954’s The Shiner, Rockwell visited two hospitals, spoke with The Berkshire Eagle of his need for a “ripe” injury (“Several hundred people responded,” writes Solomon, “many of them prisoners”), and finally settled on a 2-year-old who had recently fallen down the stairs.

His element, his habitat, was the collective reverie that we now know as popular culture. He was a gifted propagandist: feast your eyes on 1943’s Rosie the Riveter—prizefighter shoulders, expression of insouciant triumph, foot crushing a copy of Mein Kampf—and thank God he wasn’t a Nazi. But the question of whether his illustrations are Art seems moot: they weren’t meant for the gallery wall; they were meant for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, for the blank and primitive stare of the man about to buy a pack of gum at a bus station, and his preferred response to them was a quick bark of laughter. He didn’t want to perturb or ontologically confound. He wanted to be got, immediately.

Solomon’s will not be the last book on Rockwell. The man and his work are too rich a seam. His bottoms alone, his human bottoms, could be the subject of a nice monograph: Norman Rockwell’s American Asses. I’m quite serious. What do the baggy hindquarters of the Tattoo Artist, unreflectively shoved in our faces as he leans into the intricacies of his work—eyebrows raised, hair in frowsy spikes—tell us about the self-forgetfulness of creation? And what about the terrible shining smoothness and vulnerability of the boy’s half-exposed buttocks in Before the Shot? On the canvas they are mere inches (though the metal upright of a scale strictly intervenes) from the broad white-coated doctor who is preparing the syringe.

Best of all, the proof of his genius is testable. Sit for a while with a book of Norman Rockwell illustrations, then go out onto the streets of any American city. You will be amazed at the Rockwellian scenarios that present themselves, at the speed with which democratic urban randomness, the everyday sprawl of suggestion, resolves itself into a sequence of Rockwell visual punch lines. Those two women smoking outside their office building, one with her back to the wall, the other poised and statuesque, exhaling coolly like some deity of cigarettes. That buxom elderly lady leaving the department store, displaying to her husband the little outfit she has just bought for their grandchild; his evident uninterest, verging on disgust. Pure Rockwell. Quite a triumph for an artist, no? To have entered the American grain in this ineradicable way. To have bent reality—mildly but irreversibly—to his own rumpled will.