What should we not want from an artist’s biography? We should not want dirt. We should not want the biographer to refer to the artist in the first person, as though they are buddies. We should not want the artist handled with kid gloves, nor should we want a hatchet job. We should not want the biographer to forget art is the reason we care about the artist’s life, which means of course, that if the art is more necessary than the artist, then the artist biography is essentially less necessary than either. Basically, we probably shouldn’t want artist biographies.
But should we want one anyway, we should want one that takes the artist’s work seriously; one that tells a story that is as much about the artist’s time as it is about the artist; one composed of interesting anecdotes and facts about the artist’s life, facts that will surprise, amuse, illuminate, possibly outrage; we should want the biography’s style to give a sense of the style of the artist’s art.
In other words, should we want an artist’s biography, then we should want “American Mirror,” Deborah Solomon’s lively, intelligent, and only occasionally infuriating new book about the life of Norman Rockwell.
Solomon — author of biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell — is perfectly suited to write this book. For one, she’s winningly honest about her own, early dislike of Rockwell (“Rockwell?” she writes. “Oh, God.”). For another, she not only overcomes that prejudice but proves herself an astute critic of Rockwell’s work — not only its effects on the viewer (“his work can put you in mind of that sunny, hopeful moment right before lunch”) — but also the way in which his work bridged the modernists who rejected him and the pop artists who reclaimed his work as having influenced their own. Likewise, Solomon is also expert in distinguishing Rockwell’s superior work from his lesser work (her discussion of his famous “Four Freedoms’’ series is especially excellent).
But mostly, Solomon has a terrific ear and eye for the most telling details that make up Rockwell’s interesting life. Here are a few:
Rockwell disliked school but nonetheless ended up marrying three schoolteachers. As a young artist Rockwell evidently stood in front of a Rembrandt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ordered himself to “Swoon, damn you, swoon.”
He was described by a journalist as having “the eyes of an angel and the neck of a chicken.” In his autobiography he remembered he’d sailed to Europe without his first wife, Irene, although “US immigration records reveal she was on the boat both ways.”
Boys were easier for him to paint than girls, and he admitted, “sex appeal seems to be something I just can’t catch on a piece of canvas.” He served as a judge for the second Miss America beauty contest, and during his time in Atlantic City he tried on four or five corsets until “I found one I liked.”
He painted a portrait of President Lyndon Johnson, and when Johnson said he preferred Rockwell’s portrait to one by another artist, Rockwell responded, “President Johnson is a terrible art critic.”
Rockwell was the son of a textile-company manager and raised in and around New York City, though he and his work are synonymous with Small Town, USA. His maternal grandfather was a moderately talented but troubled painter (he mostly painted pictures of birds) who died a vagrant.
By 19, Rockwell had launched his career as an illustrator. He eventually became most famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers but also drew a cover for the radical leftist magazine Ramparts. He took the mood-lifting drug Dexamyl and liked it so much that he drew illustrations for its manufacturer’s national marketing campaign.
He and his second wife, Mary, moved from Vermont to Stockbridge, Mass., to be closer to their psychoanalysts. His marriage to his third wife, Molly, seemed to be his happiest, in part because she seemed to understand and accept that Rockwell’s studio was where he got away from people, even though people were really the only things he was ever interested in drawing or painting. Once, a friend praised the Vermont landscape. “ ‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful?’ replied Rockwell. ‘Thank heavens I don’t have to paint it!’ ”
What do these facts tell us? That Rockwell was as conflicted about his art as he was about his life, and that, if a biography is going to do justice to either, it should present these facts in a Rockwellian fashion: colloquially, self-deprecatingly. In this, Solomon is excellent. But it should be said that she is less good at avoiding one of the usual pitfalls of the artist biography: the leering insinuations about an artist’s deep, dark secrets.
In “American Mirror,” for instance, Solomon repeatedly wonders about Rockwell’s obvious interest in boys: “Once again, we are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses. But an impulse is not a crime. There is no evidence that he acted on his impulses or behaved in a way that was inappropriate for its time.”
Notice that “we are made to wonder” seems to suggest that Solomon herself is not the one doing the wondering, not the one making us wonder, too; notice how she seems to make an accusation while then admitting that there’s no proof to back it up, so, hey, never mind. Forget about it! Why do biographers do this? Don’t they know it makes them seem small and silly?
Case in point, when Solomon points out that Rockwell wore his shoes too small, and then writes, “He squeezed his feet into tight shoes, as if trying to keep the dirtier parts of himself constrained.” The tennis player Rafael Nadal is also rumored to wear too-small shoes. He might want to switch over to proper-size sneakers before his biographer finds out.
My point is not that this kind of stuff ruins “American Mirror,” but that the book is better than it, better than almost any artist biography I can think of in that it creates a work of art that mirrors the qualities that make the artist under discussion worth caring about in the first place. In one great moment early in the book, Solomon, in talking about how Rockwell manages to make commercial art personal, writes, “A story can be an opportunity for self-expression, even if the story was written by someone else.” This is as true of Solomon’s book as it is of Rockwell’s art.
Brock Clarke’s sixth book, the novel “The Happiest People in the World,’’ will be published in September 2014. He teaches at Bowdoin College and lives in Portland, Maine.