This Isn’t About Norman Rockwell

I thought it was clear enough that “the Norman Rockwell” story isn’t really about Rockwell per se, but the comments about the story on Facebook are so out of left field, I thought I’d revisit it. First, the story itself, from the 1 December 2013 issue:


Norman Rockwell, who died in 1978 at age 84, is still considered an icon for the way he captured the American experience with his paintings, created for the Saturday Evening Post (more than 300 original cover illustrations over 47 years), the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, Boy’s Life, and many other publications. Multiple U.S. presidents sat for portraits by the idealist American painter. But a new biography paints Rockwell in a different light. He was a high-school dropout. His first wife left him for another man; his second wife apparently committed suicide. He ignored his three sons; “There was a hollowness where the family was supposed to be,” says Jarvis, the eldest. His third wife, the biography says, was “his feminine ideal: an elderly schoolteacher who was unlikely to make sexual demands.” And, it adds, he may have been gay. At the very least, he “had intense emotional relationships with the men and boys who modeled for him,” though there is no evidence of sexual liaisons with any of them. (RC/Albany [N.Y.] Times-Union) …Yep, that’s the American experience all right.

I thought that even if people didn’t “get” the point of the story, the tagline made it pretty plain. But apparently not.

The Reaction

As noted, the story was posted on Facebook. The reactions were mixed:

So f****g what??? I do love his work, have all the books of his work I have been able to put my hands on and would buy anything new. I am not american, nor gay, and my family is splendid…Why sh** people this way??? It’s cruel, it’s unnecesary, it’s not even proved true. –Rafael, Spain (*s quoted from the original)

What’s so silly is that it doesn’t matter. I takes nothing from and adds nothing to his talent. So, it comes down to…Who cares? –Cynde, B.C., Canada

Yes…it’s true. Everybody in the past was gay. There, I said it. It’s time for the truth about every famous person in history to come out of the closet. (Now where’s that “rolling my eyes” emoticon…?) –Jonathan, Oregon

Before I get to the point, which is not “about Rockwell,” the prize of completely not getting it has to go to this one:

Oh look, the tagline of a racist bigot. Remember people, only in America have people ever been idolized. Does Randy even read his own articles anymore? –Cliff, location hidden by Facebook privacy settings.

Wow: what confusion! A white guy is bitching that a white guy is “racist” when it comes to commenting about a story featuring …a white guy. Uh huh.

Reacting Without Thinking

Yeah, Cliff let his emotions get in the way of actually thinking. Maybe after reflecting on things for a few days he’ll let logic kick in, right? Nope: he came back a few days later to follow up — after this page was posted:

You don’t know what racism is, do you? My comment was about the tag line that specifies Americans. I used the term correctly. Racism is not only about skin color.

So apparently his complaint is really that an American made a comment about Americans in a social commentary column story that featured …an American. I guess he doesn’t know what racism is.

But others got a lot closer, or even hit it right on the head:

I don’t think Mr. Rockwell painted a perfect past, he only captured moments that resonated with many among his audience. I’ve also found that many who imerse themselves in their vocation as completely as Mr. Rockwell did, often do so at the expense of their family and social lives. Few of the most celebrated artists had what one might call a happy family life. –Debbie, South Carolina

Perfection is just an illusion. –Graciela, Texas

I think it’s a perfect metaphor. In those days, those problems did exist just as they always have. But society tended to pretend they didn’t exist. –Michael, South Carolina

It’s Not About Rockwell?!

When you consider that True is social commentary (and news commentary in particular), it’s wise to step back a little and think about what the topic really is.

To wit: no, this story is not “about” Norman Rockwell. It’s about “the American Experience” that Rockwell captured so well in what a lot of Americans consider an “ideal time.”
Rockwell's biography
Rockwell did a great job of capturing idealism, and was “iconic” as an American “who served as our unofficial ‘artist in chief’ and bolstered our country’s national identity,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. So much so, the book’s very title is American Mirror.

And it’s “about” what a book needs to do — or what its author and/or publisher thinks it needs to do — to sell books today. The dust jacket continues that Rockwell was “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 [author Deborah] Solomon.”

Not to me that’s not what’s interesting, but rather that book publishers feel the need to get all breathless and conspiratorial about describing a human being.

The Point

Yep: we all suffer internal conflict, unease, and insecurity about whether we “fit in” with others. We indeed all want “inclusion and normalcy,” as Solomon grasps.

So what is it when you have a person who struggled in school, had trouble with relationships, wasn’t a perfect parent, enjoyed their work, and was sexually ambiguous, even if they didn’t want to talk about that ambiguity in public? That’s called a human being. And sure enough, “…Yep, that’s the American experience all right.” — and the melting pot of America (e pluribus unum) reflects the majority of the world.

“It’s a perfect metaphor,” Michael in South Carolina said above. “In those days, those problems did exist just as they always have. But society tended to pretend they didn’t.”

Exactly. And as Graciela in Texas summarized, “Perfection is just an illusion.”

It always has been.

The story isn’t “about” Norman Rockwell, it’s about us all.

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18 Comments on “This Isn’t About Norman Rockwell

  1. I don’t really care about all of the “stuff” going on with his life. Being 70 years old I enjoyed and still enjoy his paintings/illustrations. He was a human like the rest of us with all the good and bad we all have.

  2. Cliff from Nowhere may still have a germ of truth, even if he gets the source of that truth terribly, terribly wrong. When you look at the “idyllic” America through Rockwell’s eyes, you miss a lot of what was going on during his heyday of the 1930s through 1960s: blatant racism in Americas streets, government offices, military, employers, churches, bus stations, etc. Rockwell’s paintings, as great as they are, ignore an awful lot of ugliness that was reality for a big percentage of our population. That’s not a time I would want to go back to.

  3. My reply to your post was simply a reaction to the “biography” and how so many people are more interested in pronouncing someone famous to be gay (or whatever other speculative assertion they choose) than in really providing anything concrete about the person. (You did catch the “rolling eyes” part?)

    It’s a sad state of affairs (no pun intended) that so many people are more concerned with whom a person is sleeping than the substance of either their character or actions.

    Just so! -rc

  4. What Michael said, “In those days, those problems did exist just as they always have. But society tended to pretend they didn’t.”, is not the way I saw it, as I was living through it. Many “abnormal” behaviors existed, though they weren’t painted on the front page. They remained in the closet, and there were no problems. What someone did in their own home, or in the numerous bars an other establishments that catered to them, was nobodies business, but their own — unless they brought it into public light.

    So, it wasn’t pretending that it didn’t exist, instead, you could say that it was “tolerance”, before “tolerance” became politically correct.

    You are incorrect that everything was fine, as long as it was kept in their own homes. Police actually raided homes looking for “abnormal behaviors” — and prosecuted, or beat up, those doing what was indeed nobody’s business. -rc

  5. Gunny, he certainly didn’t ignore racism. Have you seen, for examples, “Southern Justice” and “The Problem We All Live With”?

    Several of Rockwell’s civil rights paintings can be seen here. -rc

  6. I suppose it is more about where in this country. I was raised the the Los Angeles area. There were queer and transvestite bars, and they were not raided, though often interesting scenes could be seem while driving by.

    Later, when I was in Alabama and Florida, I did sense the morality was at a different level than back west. The Bible Belt may well have had more stringent “ethics”, though I would suppose that often any such action would be a consequence of someone acting outside of their closet. thereby encouraging a response, inside of their closet.

    Even in the mid-sixties, in Alabama, their seemed to be a “blind eye” approach, though if someone in the neighborhood was acting peculiarly, so long as that person had no other “bad habits”, and didn’t really go in public with his beliefs, he was still tolerated.

    I suppose that my impression was one of acceptance, so long as the closet door stayed closed — even in the Bible Belt.

    This is beyond my area of expertise, so hopefully someone who was there will weigh in about what was really going on. -rc

  7. I watched with no surprise the avalanche of comments to this post; one thing guaranteed from This is True is discourse — everyone from every spectrum weighs in. Now it’s my turn.

    Rockwell’s work is poignant and beautiful — every painting evoking emotions — just like his life, and mine. I used to think the truth about a public figure would taint my image of them, now it only makes them seem more human.

  8. It seems to me Rockwell’s portraits are how he WISHED live would be like. They seem so wistful and looking back on how the mind’s eye remembers things.

  9. Is it not natural (normal?) for human beings to recoil, on an instinctual level, from aberration? Would one not expect, for the sake of self-preservation, any “normal” human being to suspect the intentions of another who does not look, act or sound familiar (in a “family” sense)?

    Norman Rockwell’s paintings have ever been a source of pleasure to me for their superbly artistic presence. I have also come to appreciate his art as an expression of one man’s view of what it is to be human. His paintings have also, however, been a source of wonder as I, as a child, struggled with the reason why, for instance, the human race requires an innocent young girl to be escorted to school by a squad of protectors. As an adult I now know why. Human beings will naturally become defensive when confronted by aberration. The color of one’s skin, the words one chooses to use, the method by which one recognize his or her “God”, all are potential sources of aberration and have, among others, been dealt with by human beings throughout history. Norman Rockwell illustrates these deviations from the “norm” but then leaves it up to us to decide how to deal with it.

    It may be his greatest gift that he merely placed before us that which we all know. That is to say, we, as human beings, are basically aware of our prejudices, our inclination toward exclusion of those unfamiliar and our need to commune with like kind. It is only through the use of intellect that we are able to rise above the base and begin to resolve the problems Mr. Rockwell so expertly exposed. It is up to us.

  10. People look for reasons to erupt before they look for a common thread. My takeaway was that we all have flaws, do not envy others as you do not know what path they are walking.

  11. What most of those “shocked” or “scandalized” by these reflections on the Iconic Rockwell seem to be reacting to is Truth. What you have done, Mr. Cassingham, is to have the courage to publish Truth with all its human faces. Rockwell was not always “idealistic” in his work — he tackled many difficult issues, with subtly, humor and humanity. It’s about time America matured beyond its troubled fear of sex and honest human foibles. Dishonesty lies in the need of Hollywood happy endings.

  12. For all the “Who Cares?” comments … I intently care. I’ve been paying attention, for many decades now, to the way we view our “famous people”, and I was appreciative that this example was posted.

    It used to be that there was a strong line between someone’s “public life” and their “private life”. The way I remember, we didn’t expect to see anything about the latter.

    But that has changed. We get more reporting on the private life these days, and it does give us the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of the people we read about. And (surprise!) we need to have more realistic expectations.

    I heard a great observation yesterday about some artists. They spend so much time in their internal lives that it does cause some failures in their real lives. And I agree, because I also see it in other fields. If I see a politician that has given their all for legislation and leading the country, I am already half-prepared to find out that they haven’t spent the usual amount of time with their personal life.

    Now that our country has transitioned to paying attention to both private and public lives, it has helped me to keep the two sides separate. Yes, Joan Crawford was a great actress, and yes, she may have not been a good mother at the same time. Some very good people people are nice personally, and not very successful professionally. We may have some wonderful media personalities that are not at all really like their media image.

    And it is known that Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, and a rather unlikeable monster of a private person.

    So I keep as “balanced” a perspective as I can, and try to understand rather than judge.

    I prefer the present news methods over the old ones that Randy describes. He is correct regarding “searches” for “abnormal behaviors” — I don’t think anyone here needs to be reminded of how a “different” person could be persecuted.

    Normal Rockwell is known as a great artist to a lot of people … through his art. And I like what I know of him as a man and a private person. I was lucky enough to live within driving distance of Stockbridge, where his home is now the Norman Rockwell Museum. My wife and I visited there and did find it isolated and quiet, a good place for an artist to concentrate without interruptions.

    I’d recommend a visit to anyone who is interested. He is described there as a very, very busy worker. For his paintings, he reached out to nearly anyone he found in the town that had an interesting face, getting an awful lot of the locals in for sittings. It was a bit of an honor to find one’s own face included in a Rockwell painting. (You might like to know that the face of the rabbi in Rockwell’s “The Golden Rule” was actually that of a Stockbridge Irish mail carrier who wasn’t jewish at all.)

    So, although he spent a lot of time in his isolated studio, I don’t think he was actually isolated there. He spent a LOT of time with townspeople, and perhaps not enough with his wives and three sons.

    For the “Who Cares?” commenters, I’d point out that, for me, it doesn’t take away from a celebrity’s public successes if they’ve had a less than stellar private life.

    God’s blessings to you.

  13. It’s not so much that people used to pretend that problems didn’t exist. It’s that they allowed people to have a private life and a public life. It’s the difference between wearing clothes, or not.

  14. Ms. Solomon is doing what’s considered in Judaism as Lashon Hara (transliterated). It means Evil Tongue or spreader of salacious gossip or supposition about another.

    By her surname, if that is her real surname, she’s violating Jewish law. Let the Creator judge her for that. I judge her work as perhaps only valuable as kindling for a fireplace.

    And for profit,I hold her work in the lowest of regard, lower than the slime under the sea slugs in the Marianas Trench.

    Many brilliant people have poor family lives, to examine and make assumptions or create stories such as hers are trash. Mr. Rockwell was in fact, a brilliant man. Let’s leave it at that. He deserves to rest in peace. I won’t give a dime to anyone who writes such tripe.

    Quoting statistical information (such as his three wives) or living people (such as his son) doesn’t smack of “supposition” or “tripe” to me. Rather, to me, it speaks to the premise that Rockwell was, in fact, an actual human being, not burdened with the label “perfect.” -rc

  15. Now that you have explained the point of your story, the tagline makes sense. However, the tagline without the commentary of this blog post does sound quite bigoted or anti-gay.

    You thought the tagline affirming that sexual ambiguity being “the American experience” as anti-gay? I’ll suggest you didn’t think about it long enough. -rc

  16. I lived for some years in a tiny Virginia town where, I came to the conclusion, the folks who had been raised there were nostalgic for a past that had never been. That same nostalgia, I think, explains the popularity of Rockwell’s work. It didn’t represent reality then, nor of course does it now.

    But the life Rockwell led doesn’t diminish (or add) to the appeal or the quality of his work. As a kid, I loved it. But when I grew up I realized that it had appealed to my fantasies, and escapism if you will. I too was nostalgic for a past that had never been.

    But artists should be judged not by their lives but by the merits of their works. Mediocre ones too.

  17. I have to admit I too first read the Norman Rockwell piece without catching the title accurately. Then I reread it. I agree it’s not about Norman Rockwell. This amounts to some ghoul mining NR’s past for dirt and exposing it for gossip, profit, and making the rounds on tv as a talking head. Salacious gain at the expense of a dead man.
    It’s a modern genre in its own right and it stinks.

    Quoting statistical information (such as his three wives) or living people (such as his son) doesn’t smack of “ghoul mining” or “gossip” to me. Rather, to me, it speaks to the premise that Rockwell was, in fact, an actual human being, not burdened with the label “perfect.” -rc

  18. There is a difference between “thought provoking” and “vague”. Don’t take offense, rc — I give you credit for being both!
    After much thought, I believe your point is this: “Ironically, people who idealize Rockwell as being quintessentially American are right, because he was a regular human like the rest of us”.

    In the process of getting here, you reminded me of some of my earlier thinking about NR. I feel his art is essentially advertising art — he was, in fact, selling magazines. I wonder if he felt that doing covers was somehow purer than doing straight-up advertising like his friend and inspiration J.C. Leyendecker, the man who invented our image of Santa Claus, but who was most famous for his 20’s era Arrow Shirt illustrations.

    Of course, NR was working for a living. Some artists might settle for a lower standard of living in exchange for being less iconic, but NR seemed quite content doing what he did.

    When we look at NRs art, as art and not as social comment, we must look at it in the context of the art of his time. Compare him to Reginald Marsh, for instance, whose color choices and style generate a much sexier interpretation of the same America.

    So there it is — a talented guy who earned his living generating appealing images of “America”. I think we all know they aren’t real, but in mass media, what is?

    No offense taken, especially since your thinking, evidently provoked by the story, led you to the exact point I was making. He was confused, unsure, divorced, insecure — an American and a human like us. -rc


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