Not like his pictures

Norman Rockwell's art was better than critics realized, but his personal life was darker

Throughout his long and productive career, Norman Rockwell enjoyed fame and financial success. Millions of Americans knew and loved his artwork from seeing the hundreds of memorable covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post magazine. He wasn't just an artist; he was an American icon.

To the critics and art historians, however, Rockwell was merely an "illustrator." An honorable profession, but hardly the sort of "serious" painting that was of interest to the critical elite who certified artistic talent in midcentury America.

Despite the public acclaim and accolades, he was deeply frustrated and unhappy that the artistic elite refused to see him as a serious artist. Perhaps most galling, when New York's brand-new Museum of Modern Art devoted its second exhibition to 19 living American artists who were representative of the principal tendencies in contemporary painting, Norman Rockwell - the most popular and best known artist of the time - did not make the cut.

Artistic fashions have changed. In the past two years, a Rockwell retrospective traveled the country and played to huge crowds. Today's art critics, unlike their predecessors, are no longer overwhelmed by the Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists that dominated American art a generation ago.

Scholars and critics who have examined his work closely have concluded that his paintings feature great painterly skill, a masterly use of color, and superb draftsmanship. Indeed, he is now commonly regarded as the artistic heir of the 17th-century Dutch masters like Jan Steen, Jan Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Pretty good company.

Perhaps the surest sign that Norman Rockwell has finally arrived in the modern art world is that the Guggenheim Museum, that citadel of modernism, will host a Norman Rockwell exhibition next spring.

And now comes one more indication that Rockwell has assumed his rightful place in the pantheon of American artists: a full-length, critical biography of exceptional quality.

Laura Claridge admits that she did not know much about the artist when she happened across a painting that she admired for its draftsmanship and color. Upon discovering, to her great surprise, that Norman Rockwell did it, she decided it was time for a closer examination of this artist and his work.

The result of that chance discovery is a superb biography that sheds important new light on this seminal figure in American cultural history. Drawing upon extensive correspondence, private family archives, and interviews, Claridge shows that Rockwell was, in many ways, exactly the kind of "everyman" that he appeared to be. He was a hard-working, intelligent, curious, generous, and decent man who made friends easily. The naturalness of his paintings belies the care and effort that went into painting them. His "Four Freedoms" series - perhaps his best-known paintings - took more than 18 months to complete.

But Claridge demonstrates that Rockwell was a far more complex and interesting man than his public image suggested. He was a driven artist, chronically late and overcommitted. He had a troubled relationship with his mother and his brother. He married three times, and his family life was anything but the idealized, upbeat image that appears in his paintings.

With his first wife, Rockwell experimented with an open marriage, and she divorced him. His second wife bore him three sons and supported his work devotedly. But she suffered from alcoholism and depression, and a nervous breakdown led to extended hospitalizations and an early death.

Rockwell also suffered bouts of severe depression that led to hospitalization and, Claridge implies, suicidal impulses.

Unlike the caring and involved father that the public imagined, Rockwell was a distant man who loved his family but was totally unable to meet their emotional needs. In Claridge's insightful words, "He often appropriated the emotional marrow of his relationships with his three wives and three sons to feed an audience that was always clamoring for more."

Claridge's book is carefully researched, well written, and a pleasure to read. The author likes and admires her subject, but sees him fairly. It is heavy on psychological analysis and less focused on art or cultural history. Nor, with a few exceptions, does it offer a detailed analysis of Rockwell's paintings.

But just as art historians have finally begun to see beyond the surface images and appreciate the rigorous structure and draftsmanship in his art, Claridge goes beneath the surface to examine his personality and private life. In both cases, we now have a far better understanding of the man and his art than we did a decade ago.

Many now well-known artists won fame, public approval, and scholarly interest only after they had died. For Norman Rockwell, the first two came early and in abundance. Only the third eluded him. It has now arrived.

Terry Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

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