The way he wanted life to look


Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Bridge Game,” 1948, oil on canvas, published by Saturday Evening Post, May 15, 1948 cover Image Courtesy of National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI., cover image © SEPS:

There’s another picture below.(Rerunning this posting from the pre-renovation version of New England Diary a few weeks ago.)

The New York Times seems to be on a Norman Rockwell kick, with a long review of a new book out about him and a travel piece about Arlington, Vt., where he lived for a long time.

That was before he moved to Stockbridge, Mass, in the Berkshires, to, among other things, be closer to Austen Riggs, the mental hospital identified with many celebrity patients.

As Deborah Solomon (who also wrote the travel story) writes in “American Mirror: The Art and Life of Norman Rockwell,” his life was far more complex and darker than most of his beautiful art. That he was a troubled man (who ain’t?) is not news, but Ms. Solomon puts it together very well indeed.

He was apparently conflicted about homosexual longings, had three troubled marriages and was a lifelong hypochondriac. The Thoreau line about “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” comes to mind. Still, he obviously found much comfort and joy in his studio. Do too many writers these days make too much of sexual conflicts? Maybe a highly creative person’s biggest trauma is the difficulty of finding meaning in a seemingly chaotic world, a torturous search for ultimate meaning.

Some of this reminds me of the strange story of Robert Frost, whose public image as a sort of quaint, folksy, friendly rural poet was so false. In fact, Frost, a kind of Modernist, used his New England settings to explore existential quandaries; and he could be a very nasty man.

Many of his poems were dark, dark, dark. Take a look at his poem design “Design”.

But, in part because his folksy image got him many lucrative lecture gigs, he played along with it, to a point (while winking).

But then, behind almost family’s door is conflict and mental illness of varying seriousness. In some way, maybe imaginative repression and diversion, Rockwell got great popular art done despite, or because of, his problems, through vast technical skill, knowledge of other masters’ work and a rich visual imagination.

The Rockwell renaissance also reminds me of how much many of us miss the golden age of magazines, such as The Saturday Evening Post, for which Rockwell did so much work. The weekly arrival of pubs such as The Post and Life magazine was a joy that I, anyway, have never found with TV, the Internet and newspapers (with the possible exception of the beautiful old New York Herald Tribune).

That is probably ungrateful, since newspapers paid for most of my upkeep for almost 44 years.

Speaking of the past, I was pleasantly surprised to see that John Wilmerding, my art-history professor of almost a half century ago at Dartmouth, was the reviewer of Ms. Solomon’s fine new book. Mr, Wilmerding, an heir to great Havemeyer sugar fortune in New York, also has one of America’s greatest collections of American art, much of which he is giving away.

The best places to see Rockwell work are the National Museum of American Illustration, in Newport, and, the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge.


Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), ”Volunteer Fireman,” 1931, oil on canvas, published by Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1931 cover image Courtesy of National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, RI. Saturday Evening Post cover image © SEPS: