Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly reflect the relationship of Tom and Abigail Rockwell to the artist.
In a way, Deborah Solomon was asking for it. Writing an honest biography of a beloved cultural icon is a bit like being a bomb disposal specialist. Sooner or later, you unearth a bomb you can't defuse. David Michaelis learned this five years ago with his darkly captivating portrait of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Solomon is learning it now, in the wake of her superb and nuanced "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" (FSG), which reveals the complicated, sometimes tormented man behind the innocent public image.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was, arguably, America's best-known artist for half a century, largely due to his hundreds of cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, the nation's widest-circulating magazine. He was unofficially known as America's "artist in chief" because his images held a mirror up to the nation that reflected an ideal and innocent world without a note of darkness in it.
Though she had the full cooperation of Rockwell's family, with whom she grew close over the 12 years of research, as well as access to the collections and archives at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Solomon was taken aback by the vitriol and anger of Tom Rockwell, one of the artist's sons, and Abigail, the artist's granddaughter. Members of the artist's family came out to condemn the book and its portrayal of Rockwell. The material about which they took umbrage — the fairly obvious fixation that Rockwell had on men and boys as subjects and companions, the withering loneliness of his first two marriages — takes up just a small part of the larger story. And, curiously, the real Norman Rockwell that emerges from "American Mirror" is far more interesting than the air-brushed myth. Even those who are quick to deride his work as sentimental or cloying may, after this book, come to share Solomon's belief that Rockwell is an artist "for the ages," one who combined photorealistic graphic skills with wish-fulfilling fantasies to create an idealized world that even he knew did not exist.
Solomon will be in conversation with curator Robin Jaffee Frank about Rockwell and her book on Jan. 16 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
When we caught up with Solomon, she had, earlier in the day, been blindsided by a radio newsman from Albany who called with Tom and Abigail Rockwell on the other line. He asked Solomon to "respond to the charges," as if she were under arraignment.
"Nobody had ever asked me to respond, so I was glad to have a chance to do it," she said. "The backlash has been out of control, with hate speech and rants, and so on. The radio guy said, 'the family feels betrayed by you,' so I said, 'I feel betrayed by them….Surely they have to be open to the possibility of some of the things I raise and that he had some of these impulses. Norman was an astute person, a great observer. He was aware of his longings. He was in psychotherapy with Erik Erikson for years. He did know all this about himself. The only other reason for him to paint men and boys was strictly for money, which would make him simply a hack for hire. And he was not that."
And yet, what they most object to comprises such a tiny part of the book, just a few paragraphs.
"He had an interest in men's bodies as subjects to paint, and it's really sad that the family misconstrued what I've written," she said. "He was a real artist and in the torment department he's right up there with the best of them."
Solomon, who has written two previous acclaimed biographies of artists Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, got interested in Rockwell after seeing a 2001 Guggenheim retrospective. Prior to that she'd thought of him "as a cornball and a square." Having grown up "at the altar of abstract art," she saw Rockwell as everything "modernism sought to topple."
"I had not thought about Rockwell in any serious way until then, but was blown away by the work," she said. "He created this parallel universe. So many artists once existed and were well known but now lost. It all fascinated me. Look at J.C. Leyendecker who was huge in his day for completely forgotten now. Somehow Rockwell has survived."
Solomon credits Rockwell with being more than just a painter of nostalgia. At the outset of World War II, he embarked on a series of paintings to illustrate a rousing speech by Pres. Roosevelt called "The Four Freedoms" — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. The paintings were the game-changers of his career and a needed ballast for a nation at war. Later, at the dawn of the 1960s, he turned to the civil rights movement for inspiration and created some iconic images that ennobled that struggle.
"Rockwell defined our national goals in the 1940s with The Four Freedoms and then defined our goals in the 1960s with his civil rights posters, particularly Ruby Bridges," she said, adding, "His poster of Freedom from Fear began to reappear after 9/11."
"An Evening with Deborah Solomon" plus a book signing of "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" is Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford. Free. Information: 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.org.