Painting a False Portrait

Published May 1, 2014

The New Criterion

Deborah Solomon, the author of the recently published American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, is best known for writing “Questions For,” her pugnacious and smart-aleck interview column in The New York Times Magazine that ran from 2003–2011.1

In 2006, one of her celebrity interviewees, Tim Russert, the then-host ofMeet the Press, turned the tables on Solomon with some questions of his own. In a letter to her editor, he complained that she had willfully distorted his interview and that what she published was “misleading, callous, and hurtful.”

Russert wrote that he had talked to Solomon about his fond recollections of his mother, but that she ignored his answers and instead made his father the subject of the interview. She, Russert said, “combined questions in her piece, suggesting I did not offer separate and distinct responses to each of her questions, which, of course, I did.”

The next year, Matt Elzweig, a reporter for the New York Press, published conversations he had with two of Solomon’s other interviewees: the syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson, and the popular host of NPR’sThis American Life, Ira Glass. Both told Elzweig that Solomon “had made up questions, after the fact, to match answers,” and both accused Solomon of “violating basic ethical standards by making up dialogue never said during their conversations.”

Just after Elzweig’s piece ran, Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor of the Times, weighed in. He said that Solomon had told him that she “might” have made up questions so the column would read better. In other words, for her, style trumped accuracy and veracity.

Hoyt also cited an interview Solomon gave to the Columbia Journalism Review in which she said, “Feel free to mix the pieces of this interview around, which is what I do.” When asked if there was an interview protocol, she replied, “There’s no Q and A protocol. You can write the manual.”

The Times responded by slapping a disclaimer on Solomon’s column.

I’ve recounted Solomon’s checkered history with the truth because in the 1990s she interviewed members of the Rockwell family for American Mirror. In fact, she writes in the book that her “greatest debt” is to Rockwell’s children, who furnished “essential insights” into their “father’s art and life.” But when they read American Mirror the Rockwells were outraged. And like Russert, Dickinson, and Glass, they went public with their complaints.

After the book was published in November 2013, the family wrote that Solomon’s purpose was to befriend them to write a fictionalized account for “publicity, financial gain, and self-aggrandizement.” Abigail Rockwell, the painter’s granddaughter whom Solomon calls a “radiant” and “valued friend,” told the Berkshire Eagle that the family mistakenly trusted Solomon: “Deborah befriended me, but I guess we were naïve.”

Solomon’s sketchy interview techniques and issues about her journalistic ethics were, unfortunately, exposed only after the Rockwells had entrusted her with their stories and family documents. They had no idea what they were getting into.

The Rockwells were intensely distressed and surprised by Solomon’s repeated insinuations that Norman Rockwell was a closeted homosexual and a repressed pedophile. In a second and final public statement, they protested that she “supports this unfounded claim [that the artist was a pedophile] with another phantom theory, that Rockwell was a closeted homosexual.” Solomon’s linking of pedophilia and homosexuality, they said, “is offensive and clearly homophobic.” These “phantom theories” are a mainstay of Solomon’s book.

To see what the Rockwells are talking about, just read Solomon’s mind-boggling interpretation of a vacation the artist took in 1934. He and his artist friend Fred Hildebrandt traveled to Canada for a two-week fishing trip. “Rockwell,” Solomon writes, “was then a married man of forty. Fred was a single guy of thirty-five. Reading through their diaries, it is hard to ignore the homoerotic aspects of their camping trip.”

How does Solomon reach this conclusion? Well, she quotes Rockwell’s trip diary where he writes, “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels.” Rockwell’s autobiography is full of this sort of awkward humor. Only someone without an iota of wit could see this statement as something sexual rather than humorous.

But Solomon is relentless. She then quotes another passage from the diary: “We paddle to portage near waterfall. I strip and frollick about.” Solomon’s heated imagination also sees this as sexual: “All of this is suggestive material, up to and including the ‘lick’ in his spelling of ‘frollick.’ ” Suggestive! Lick! C’mon. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a spelling mistake is just a spelling mistake. It’s only surprising that Solomon didn’t dilate on the word “paddle.”

But she’s far from finished: “The trip raises a complicated question: Was Rockwell homosexual? It depends on what you mean by the word.” This is Clintonian. Solomon admits that there is no evidence of Rockwell’s homosexuality—at least here’s an example of where she’s right. Nevertheless, her book is filled with sly innuendos and verbal winks suggesting that she thinks just the opposite.

To see how this works, just read her riff on Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, one of the paintings from his 1943 series depicting FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” A rational observer sees Freedom of Speech as the stirring representation of a town hall meeting where a citizen can freely state his opinion, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, a pillar of our Republic then under threat from the Axis dictatorships. Ah, but Solomon has a different take, and yet again sniffs out homoerotic sex in what has to be the wackiest interpretation of this painting, ever.

She calls the speaker a handsome working-class man and wonders if he is an immigrant because his complexion is the “darkest in the room.” “He is,” she writes “unattached and sexually available, unbuttoned and unzipped.” “So what we have here,” she concludes, “is a scene of town fathers listening respectfully to a swarthy, sunbaked, blue-collar neighbor, an outsider from the working class and maybe a person of ethnicity (Italian? Greek?) who isn’t afraid to think for himself or to stand alone, and who represents both the promise of the town and a threat to its genteel homogeneity.” There’s so much wrong with Solomon’s offensive racial and sexual stereotyping that it’s hard to know where to start, and even harder to fathom the mind that conceived it.

Rockwell struggled to give the concept of Freedom of Speech shape. (“It was so darned high-blown,” the artist wrote. “Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.”) In many of the studies for the painting, Carl Hess was the model for the “sexually available” man. Hess was a German immigrant who ran a gas station in Arlington, Vermont, where Rockwell was living at the time. But in each version, Hess is not a dark “person of ethnicity,” whatever that means, but, as his scruffy jacket, plaid shirt, and tanned face make clear, someone who works out of doors, unlike the white-shirted business men who listen to him. He’s not a “threat” to their “genteel homogeneity,” but a working stiff who’s entitled to his opinion as much as they are, and that’s exactly the point of the painting that Solomon, with her overwrought sexual fantasies, misses by a country mile.

These same sort of unrealities surface in Solomon’s discussion of Rockwell’s many paintings of boys, mainly in his Saturday Evening Post covers. His interest in these boys, she hints throughout the book, might have been something other than artistic.

She claims that Rockwell painted mostly men and boys, but the Rockwell family looked at the artist’s covers for LifeThe Saturday Evening Post, andLiterary Digest, his major clients, and found that there were more with girls and women than boys and men. And had Solomon searched Rockwell’s massive portfolio, she would have found hundreds of paintings with women and girls alongside young males. Rockwell was a good salesman and he knew that the antics of boys and girls, especially mischievous ones, pleased editors and sold magazines.

Rockwell was like Charles Dickens with a paintbrush, a pictorial narrator of the highest order. He had the rare ability to compose a scene, even a highly complex one, so that it could be understood almost instantly without the aid of any text. The Runaway (1958) is a classic example of Rockwell’s storytelling skills. The scene is set in a soda fountain where the runaway, a tow-headed boy of about ten, sits next to the policeman who found him. Facing them from behind a counter is the soda jerk, a middle-aged man who is smiling compassionately. Both men appear sympathetic rather than critical of the youthful adventurer; one feels that they too might have once been runaways. The policeman has even stopped to give the boy a treat before returning him to his parents.

Of course Solomon sees through this veil of innocence, her gimlet eye ever seeking hidden eroticism, which she finds in spades by what she calls a “closer reading.” In her view, the cop can be seen “as a figure of tantalizing masculinity, a muscle man in a skintight uniform and boots.” There is, she says, “something sensual about the expanse of his massive back, the sharp creases in his shirt formed where the fabric pulls. His tapered waistline is highlighted by the sheen of his wide leather belt.” He’s obviously a figure who Solomon has thought about quite a lot.

So, what’s slyly implied in her text is that The Runaway is a painting not about a heartwarming story but something more sinister: a “muscle man” gazing “intently into the boy’s eyes,” and tilting “his upper body toward him.” Solomon leaves it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions about Rockwell’s real intentions; one only hopes they are not hers.

One of Solomon’s most disturbing flights of fancy is found in her analysis of the 1954 Post cover Girl at Mirror, one of the Rockwell’s most emotive renderings of adolescence. A girl, probably about twelve or so, looks quizzically into a mirror. Dressed in a white slip, she sits on a footstool, a brush, comb, and a tube of lipstick on the floor next to her. On her lap, a magazine is open to a portrait of the then-popular movie star Jane Russell, an actress best known for her sultry looks; her flowing hair makes a conspicuous contrast to the girl’s tight braids. The girl, who has most likely put on lipstick for the first time, stares into the mirror wondering what her future as a woman will bring. Her rumpled doll on the floor seems tossed aside, as though she is putting childish things away.

Girl at Mirror is one of Rockwell’s finest covers. Each of its elements is beautifully rendered and forged into a composition of great subtlety and sophistication focusing on the touching perplexity of the young girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Solomon is having none of this. She says that from the back, the girl could actually be a boy (that naughty Norman with those boys again). But here’s the kicker, which needs to be quoted in full to be appropriately dumbfounded by Deborah Solomon’s unique pathology:

Her [the girl’s] toy doll, dressed in layers of ruffles and tossed on the floor, is a bizarrely sexualized object. . . . She is shown bent over, legs splayed, her rump lifted into the air and pressed against the hard edge of the mirror. With her right hand buried in her petticoats, the doll could almost be masturbating.

Good grief!

Solomon’s prurient obsession with Rockwell’s sexuality is only part of her unending psychological analysis of the artist. She states that he envied his older brother; that he was continuously insecure; that he was a neat freak, loveless, and depressed; that he had two unhappy marriages; that he was a hypochondriac and so forth, ad nauseam.

Now all of this may or may not be true, but so what? Countless artists across time have had similar problems, as have millions of their contemporaries. It’s a tricky thing to see an artist’s psyche expressed in his work, and it takes a genius like Solomon to show us innocents that Rockwell’s constantly buoyant, humorous, charming, and warm art is not what it looks like—that beloved paintings such as The Runaway and Girl at Mirror have dark hidden sexual agendas. Who knew?

The Rockwells say that Solomon did this for money and self-promotion. Whatever the case, her sensational claims about the artist’s sexuality have garnered American Mirror a torrent of publicity, including a giggly appearance on The Colbert Report, that forum of serious discussion.

But less remarked upon is Solomon’s attempt to make Rockwell into a 1960s lefty. Once voted one of the “Left’s Top Twenty-five Journalists” by The Daily Beast and called by The Weekly Standard someone who “expresses cold disapproval” towards conservatives, Solomon’s own politics cloud her vision of Rockwell’s later years.

Norman’s son Tom, perhaps a more authoritative source about his father’s ideology than Solomon, has written that “I can remember Pop being seriously interested in only two political issues, the Nuclear Test Ban
Treaty . . . and the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s.” Does Solomon, who is old enough to remember those days, really believe that support for these two causes was confined only to those with a “liberal agenda”?

As proof of Rockwell’s leftward drift, Solomon cites the The Golden Rule, a 1961 Saturday Evening Post cover, as a “turning-point” and “the moment when he became intent on making art that carried an overt liberal message.”

Now, aside from the fact that a painting is not a “moment,” this claustrophobic, over-detailed work with its dozens of typecast men, women, and children milling about in their native costumes seems unrelated to the words or meaning of the Golden Rule which are inscribed across its surface. In spite of what Solomon says, it simply has no story to tell, and since when is the Golden Rule the exclusive property of liberals? But, as we have seen, keen interpretation of Rockwell’s art is not one of Solomon’s strengths.

In the 1960s, the artist did indeed paint several magazine covers depicting events of that stormy decade, including The Problem We All Live With, a portrayal of a black child being escorted to a recently desegregated school by U.S. Marshals; The Peace Corps, a representation of Peace Corps volunteers; and Murder in Mississippi, an interpretation of the notorious murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

All of these pictures embody noble but not particularly liberal political subjects. Yet because they are so closely anchored to specific events of their time, they now appear dated and less interesting than Rockwell’s previous works, many of which dealt with enduring and universal themes. Unfortunately, many, but not all, of the aging artist’s late paintings evidence a decline in his technical and compositional virtuosity, with more than a few descending into a mawkishness alien to earlier decades.

Solomon’s book is so agenda-driven that it neglects the most important thing about Rockwell: his art. Instead of wrestling with the difficult and subtle questions of his artistic origins, his creativity, the elaborate and arduous working up of pictures from an initial idea through sketches to finished paintings, his superb draftsmanship, the difficult task of making paintings to be reproduced on flat printed pages, and other fundamental aspects of his art, she proffers theories and a surfeit of biographical detail. (Do we really need to know the addresses of all the artist’s homes or the menu of a restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts?) Moreover, by her concentration on the magazine covers (they account for 85 percent of the works she mentions), she gives short shrift to Rockwell’s many other important commissions for book and short story illustration, advertising art, and calendars.

Publications authored by academic art historians are written by subspecialists for other subspecialists. They are mostly turgid, theory-driven, hyper-specialized, and jargon-infested, and, with a few notable exceptions, treat works of art as mere reflections of social, economic, or political events. So the publication of a new biography by someone outside the ivory tower is usually a welcome event, but here again, Solomon disappoints. Although her writing is sprightly, she affronts Rockwell’s art in her vain search to see beyond and through it.

But worse still, she leaves the reader with no sense of how the artist’s paintings still touch the hearts of millions of Americans. Several years ago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibited fifty-seven Rockwell paintings from the collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Unlike these movie moguls, most visitors to the museum could not afford a Rockwell: Saying Grace, a 1951 cover for the Post, recently sold for $46 million, the highest price ever for an American painting at auction.

At the exhibition’s opening, Spielberg and Lucas paid homage to the artist, explaining how deeply his Post covers influenced them as cinematic storytellers. The visitors, too, described their encounters with Rockwell’s art in the exhibition’s comment book. Almost everyone, from grade-schoolers enchanted by seeing Rockwell for the first time to older adults who were once avid readers of the Post, wrote warmly about how heartened they were by what they saw in Rockwell’s art: not a mundane reality but a world full of cheer, humor, innocence, and good motives, a world that never existed but one they longed for.

The world of Solomon’s Rockwell exists only in the depths of her own lurid imagination. American Mirror reflects not the Rockwell seen by the Smithsonian visitors but the bleaker likeness of Deborah Solomon herself.

1 American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, by Deborah Solomon; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pages, $28.


Bruce Cole is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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