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American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwellby Deborah Solomon
Synopses & Reviews
“Welcome to Rockwell Land,” writes Deborah Solomon in the introduction to this spirited and authoritative biography of the painter who provided twentieth-century America with a defining image of itself. As the star illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, Norman Rockwell mingled fact and fiction in paintings that reflected the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of American democracy. Freckled Boy Scouts and their mutts, sprightly grandmothers, a young man standing up to speak at a town hall meeting, a little black girl named Ruby Bridges walking into an all-white school — here was an America whose citizens seemed to believe in equality and gladness for all.
Who was this man who served as our unofficial “artist in chief” and bolstered our country's national identity? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking façade lay a surprisingly complex figure — a lonely painter who suffered from depression and was consumed by a sense of inadequacy. He wound up in treatment with the celebrated psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. In fact, Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts so that he and his wife could be near Austen Riggs, a leading psychiatric hospital. “What's interesting is how Rockwell's personal desire for inclusion and normalcy spoke to the national desire for inclusion and normalcy,” writes Solomon. “His work mirrors his own temperament — his sense of humor, his fear of depths — and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves than the sallow, solemn, hard-bitten Puritans they knew from eighteenth-century portraits.”
Deborah Solomon, a biographer and art critic, draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and documents to explore the relationship between Rockwell's despairing personality and his genius for reflecting America's brightest hopes. “The thrill of his work,” she writes, “is that he was able to use a commercial form [that of magazine illustration] to thrash out his private obsessions.” In American Mirror, Solomon trains her perceptive eye not only on Rockwell and his art but on the development of visual journalism as it evolved from illustration in the 1920s to photography in the 1930s to television in the 1950s. She offers vivid cameos of the many famous Americans whom Rockwell counted as friends, including President Dwight Eisenhower, the folk artist Grandma Moses, the rock musician Al Kooper, and the generation of now-forgotten painters who ushered in the Golden Age of illustration, especially J. C. Leyendecker, the reclusive legend who created the Arrow Collar Man.
Although derided by critics in his lifetime as a mere illustrator whose work could not compete with that of the Abstract Expressionists and other modern art movements, Rockwell has since attracted a passionate following in the art world. His faith in the power of storytelling puts his work in sync with the current art scene. American Mirror brilliantly explains why he deserves to be remembered as an American master of the first rank.
"In this well-paced, insightful biography of the iconic illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, art critic Solomon (Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell) reveals an enormously complicated man whose wholesome vision of America was not merely commercial kitsch, but art that sprung from an emotional life fraught with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. This sympathetic portrait depicts a repressed and humble Rockwell — a fastidious realist whose style and obsessions clashed with the values of modernism. Thrice married and an apathetic husband, he clearly preferred the companionship of male friends and was likely a closeted homosexual. Rockwell also had an obsessive-compulsive personality and received therapy from the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who became a crutch as his second wife slipped into manic alcoholism. Solomon effectively refutes common misperceptions of his work, showing that Rockwell did not promote stereotypes, suburban conformity, or cater his work to the Post's demands. In addition, the author perceptively highlights the paintings' narrative intelligence, comedy, and technical skill. Though Solomon opts to simplify and quickly dismiss criticism of Rockwell (such as Dwight Macdonald's), her substantive narrative captures the abundant complexities of this unusual artist, and reclaims him as a master storyteller. 8 pages of color illus. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“In her engaging and ultimately sad biography of Norman Rockwell, Deborah Solomon fills in the partly known life of one of America's most famous and popular illustrator-artists....Ms. Solomon's book fully justifies a fresh look at his life. An art critic and author of biographies of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, she offers something new, entertaining and disturbing. Her challenge was to explain a life utterly different from Rockwell's humorous and optimistic paintings. She has told his story with a breadth of facts and narrative finesse. It is a revelation. John Wilmerding, The New York Times
“Esteemed art critic and biographer Solomon turns our perception of Norman Rockwell inside out in this fast-paced yet richly interpretative inquiry....Solomon's penetrating and commanding biography is brimming with surprising details and provocative juxtapositions.” Booklist (starred review)
“American Mirror is a book of dazzling and accomplished detail.” Ben Davis, Slate
“[American Mirror] is a biography of the highest caliber....Solomon's intimate language is complemented by brisk pacing, providing a narrative that feels refreshing, nimble, and keyed into the present.” Kirkus Reviews
The long-awaited biography of the defining illustrator of the twentieth century by a celebrated art critic.
Norman Rockwell, as much as Walt Disney or Ronald Reagan, provided America with a mirror of its dreams and aspirations. As the star illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, Rockwell portrayed a fantasy of civic togetherness, of American decency and good cheer. Or, as Deborah Solomon writes in her authoritative new biography, he painted “a history of the American people that had never happened.”
Who was Norman Rockwell? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking façade lay a surprisingly complex figure — a lonely man all too conscious of his inadequacies. Solomon describes him as an obsessive personality who wore his shoes too small, washed his paintings with Ivory Soap, and relied on the redemptive power of storytelling to stave off depression. He wound up in treatment with Erik Erikson, the influential psychotherapist. American Mirror draws on unpublished papers to explore the relationship between Rockwell's anguished creativity and his genius for reflecting American innocence. “The thrill of his work,” writes Solomon, “is that he was able to use the commercial form of magazine illustration to thrash out his private obsessions.”
In American Mirror, Solomon, a biographer and art critic, trains her perceptive eye on both the art and the man. She also brilliantly chronicles the visual history of American journalism and the battle pitting photography against illustration.
About the Author
Deborah Solomon is the author of two previous biographies of American artists: Jackson Pollock: A Biography and Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (FSG, 1997). She has written about art and culture for many publications, and her weekly interview column, "Questions For," appeared in The New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2011. She lives in New York City with her family.
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