American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

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9781250056139: American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

A "NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW" NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

A FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE IN BIOGRAPHY AND SHORTLISTED FOR THE PEN/JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY

"Welcome to Rockwell Land," writes Deborah Solomon in the introduction to this spirited and authoritative biography of the painter who provided twentieth-century America with a defining image of itself. As the star illustrator of "The Saturday Evening Post "for nearly half a century, Norman Rockwell mingled fact and fiction in paintings that reflected the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of American democracy. Freckled Boy Scouts and their mutts, sprightly grandmothers, a young man standing up to speak at a town hall meeting, a little black girl named Ruby Bridges walking into an all-white school here was an America whose citizens seemed to believe in equality and gladness for all.

Who was this man who served as our unofficial "artist in chief" and bolstered our country's national identity? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking facade lay a surprisingly complex figure 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 Solomon. "His work mirrors his own temperament his sense of humor, his fear of depths and struck Americans as a truer version of themselves than the sallow, solemn, hard-bitten Puritans they knew from eighteenth-century portraits."

Deborah Solomon, a biographer and art critic, draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and documents to explore the relationship between Rockwell's despairing personality and his genius for reflecting America's brightest hopes. "The thrill of his work," she writes, "is that he was able to use a commercial form [that of magazine illustration] to thrash out his private obsessions." In "American Mirror," Solomon trains her perceptive eye not only on Rockwell and his art but on the development of visual journalism as it evolved from illustration in the 1920s to photography in the 1930s to television in the 1950s. She offers vivid cameos of the many famous Americans whom Rockwell counted as friends, including President Dwight Eisenhower, the folk artist Grandma Moses, the rock musician Al Kooper, and the generation of now-forgotten painters who ushered in the Golden Age of illustration, especially J. C. Leyendecker, the reclusive legend who created the Arrow Collar Man.

Although derided by critics in his lifetime as a mere illustrator whose work could not compete with that of the Abstract Expressionists and other modern art movements, Rockwell has since attracted a passionate following in the art world. His faith in the power of storytelling puts his work in sync with the current art scene. "American Mirror "brilliantly explains why he deserves to be remembered as an American master of the first rank."

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About the Author :

Deborah Solomon is the author of two previous biographies of American artists: Jackson Pollock: A Biography and Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (FSG, 1997). She has written about art and culture for many publications, and her weekly interview column appeared in The New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2011. She lives in New York with her family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

ONE
THE BIRD MAN OF YONKERS
(1830 TO 1888)
 
 
For every Rembrandt, for every artist whose work shines across the divide of centuries, there are thousands of artists whose names have been forgotten. Their work remains invisible to us, shuttered away in moldering basements and junk shops where no one has bothered to dust it off and look at it for decades. It’s not a tragedy. It’s simply the law of the art jungle: lesser artists fall into obscurity over time. And then there’s even a lower category, those who never had the good fortune to climb to a respectable professional height from which to plummet.
Such an artist was Howard Hill, who endured most every disappointment that can attend the artistic life. Today, you won’t find his paintings in any museums and he isn’t mentioned in any books on American art. This is not entirely unjust. An intense, wounded man with a drinking problem, he was too overwhelmed by the demands of daily living to sustain the discipline needed for art. He died a pauper in 1888 and is buried in Yonkers, New York, in an an unmarked grave.
Hill was Norman Rockwell’s maternal grandfather; he died six years before Rockwell was born. Yet, an absence can be more vivid than a presence, and Hill would exert a large influence on his grandson. As Rockwell grew up, he had ample opportunity to look at any number of Hill’s paintings that were hanging in his home or in those of his relatives, and to hear his mother recall the flamboyant life that had produced them.
Born in London in 1830, Hill spent most of his career as an artist-émigré in Yonkers, New York, painting pictures of animals. Not elegant English animals, like the queen’s spaniels or the glossy-haired horses of George Stubbs. Rather, he was fascinated by barnyard birds of the scruffiest sort: ducks and grouses and quail, even roosters and chickens. He might portray a mother quail with a covey of little chicks standing in tall grass, at the edge of the woods, a meadow and sky unfurling in the distance. Bird painting, let’s call it, occupied its own tiny niche in the market for landscapes that had been opened up by the painters of the Hudson River School, which, of course, was not a school but the first-ever bona fide art movement in America.
Was Hill a neglected master? Hardly. Rockwell, for one, referred to his pictures as “pot-boilers.” But as a child who was gifted at drawing and uncommonly observant, he took note of certain similarities between his work and that of his grandfather. Hill, he saw, drew with care and loaded up his pictures with minute detail. Perhaps Rockwell had inherited Hill’s precisionist way with a pencil or perhaps he had consciously appropriated it. “I’m sure all the detail in my grandfather’s pictures had something to do with the way I’ve always painted,” he once noted. “Right from the beginning I always strived to capture everything I saw as completely as possible.”1
In his later years, when Rockwell was seventy-three and working out of a barn-turned-studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he was informed that one of his grandfather’s bird paintings ( Game Bird and Family) was coming up for auction at Parke-Bernet in New York. Although he was not a sentimental person and in fact could be callous with relatives, he called the auction house and then confirmed in a letter: “As you advised, I am willing to make a bid of $250, and more if necessary, because I want to get the picture.” He wound up paying $350.2
Who’s to say why one realist painter lives and dies in unrelieved obscurity while another enjoys the opposite fate—that is, rises out of nowhere to become wealthy and famous and is invited to dine with the president at the White House? This is not a question that Rockwell was likely to contemplate. He was not inclined to look back. He was one of the most efficient artists who ever lived. He never wasted a day. Is it possible to make art without risking failure? He would find a way. This, too, was part of his inheritance from Hill, whose fate alerted him to the hazards of the artistic life.
*   *   *
This story begins in London, on July 16, 1851, a Wednesday. That was the day on which Hill married a young dressmaker. Her name was Ann Patmore and she was the daughter of a servant. She had just turned twenty-two; he was slightly younger. At the time, he was living with his parents at 10 Smith Street, in a dingy brick house in Chelsea. On the marriage certificate, Hill listed himself as “Artist.” His father had to sign the document as well and gave his occupation as “House decorator,” which at the time referred to a tradesman who knew how to hang wallpaper and paint wood.
Painters in London were not a homogenous group. A hierarchy ruled. The ship painter was rated below the house painter, who in turn was rated below the sign painter. The mural painter and easel painters were at the top of the heap. In describing himself as an “artist,” Hill was referring, perhaps, less to his achievements than his plan for the future: he did not intend to wind up painting houses like his father.
In the seven years following their marriage, Howard and Ann remained in Chelsea and three children were born: Susan Ann, Thomas, and Amy Eliza.3 During that time, Hill’s career had its ups and downs, and probably more of the latter. When their first child was baptized, Hill and his wife were living on Jubilee Place and he listed his trade as “decorator,” as if momentarily knocked off his perch. When their second child was baptized, he was back up to to the status of “artist.” And when their third child was born, they did not bother having her baptized, perhaps because they were in the process of packing up their meager possessions and preparing to sail for America, where his parents had already settled.
Leaving England by crowded steerage, Hill—accompanied by Ann and their three young children—sailed from Liverpool and arrived in this country on March 22, 1858. The trip in second cabin took eight days and when they docked at the pier in New York Harbor, they arrived in a city teeming with immigrants. The streets were thronged with horses and wagons and pushcart vendors from whom you could buy a pickle or a cabbage or a live chicken. If you walked uptown on Broadway, the crowds and big buildings dwindled after Fourteenth Street, and the area known as Herald Square was considered the countryside. Up on Fifty-ninth Street, a beautiful park was about to open. It was modeled on a picturesque park in England that Hill knew well, Birkenhead Park, and perhaps he wondered why it had no name, other than “the central park.”
Our first indication of Hill’s whereabouts in America surfaces in the 1860 federal census. He and Ann were living in Yonkers, north of the city, a stretch of verdant dairy farms. Moving into the home of his widowed father, they stayed long enough for a daughter to be born in 1861. Immediately afterward, he moved his family to Hoboken, New Jersey, which was closer to the city, directly across the river from Manhattan, on the west bank of the Hudson. White-painted ferries and steamships glided by all day. Throughout the Civil War, Hill lived in Hoboken, an artist-immigrant gazing out over the river.
He got off to a promising start. He landed a job with Currier & Ives, the famous printmakers, who were based in Manhattan. Neither Nathaniel Currier nor James Merritt Ives was actually an artist. Rather, they were marketing wizards who employed dozens of artists and devised the ingenious idea of advertising their art inventory in attractive catalogs they published themselves. Some of the prints were engraved copies of paintings, but most of them were original images drawn by artists who remained unacknowledged. The prints were run off in black-and-white and then, after drying for a day or so, were finished by low-paid women who sat at long tables with stencils and pots of brightly colored inks.
The shop at 152 Nassau Street advertised itself as a “Grand Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” which was actually true. Anyone could drop by and browse through the racks of hand-colored lithographs. The inventory was constantly changing, although certain motifs were nearly sacrosanct, such as rural landscapes with two-story farmhouses and split-rail fences and horses trotting along a dirt road. Many of the prints seem to say, “We’ll all feel better with some fresh country air.” An inexplicably large number portray snow-covered farmhouses, with light playing off the rooftops and ground, as if it were possible to leach the grayness not only out of art, but out of winter as well.
The prints may have been technically awkward or unpolished, but they were usually lively, jammed with lots of informative details. And they were certainly reasonable. Prices, according to the firm’s 1860 catalog, started at eight cents and went up to more than three dollars. Any housewife could afford to buy a lithograph to frame and hang in the parlor.
Moreover, you could have the pleasure of exercising your taste by picking out one from among hundreds, preferably one that expressed “the sincere ideas and tastes of the house and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe put it in her bestselling advice book, The American Woman’s Home, in 1869. Her comment remains the only takedown to dismiss art critics and neighbors with equal harshness.
Nothing is viewed as more quintessentially American than Currier & Ives prints, but the irony is that most of the firm’s illustrators were British émigrés. Many good scenes of the Rocky Mountains were produced by Currier & Ives artists who had trained in London and never traveled very far west of the Hudson River.
Hill did not last long at the Currier & Ives shop. Whether he was too mercurial to hold down a job or too self-regarding to submit to the drudgery of copying paintings by other artists, he soon went off on his own. This is the period when he started painting groupings of ducks and quails in scenic landscapes, and it seems likely that he was influenced by James John Audubon’s famous illustrations. It had been a generation since Audubon had published his Birds of America, with its hand-colored engravings of every species he could find. Some of Hill’s paintings combine images of Audubon birds with a woodsy landscape setting. Most of his paintings were done on small canvases, about ten by twelve inches, and some are just six by eleven inches. They’re painted in a tight, detail-laden style and when they err, it is on the side of preciousness.
In New York the economy boomed during the Civil War and Hill prospered. He took a studio in Manhattan and was listed in the city directory as “Howard Hill artist 609 Broadway, residence Hoboken.” In 1865, four of his bird paintings were included in the most important survey show of the year—the fortieth Annual Exhibition at the National Academy of Design, which had just moved into a grand new building on East Twenty-third Street. At the time, the Academy was the foremost art school and museum in the city; in fact, it was the only art museum. There was no Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were no public rooms where you could see a Rembrandt or a Vermeer or even minor Dutch masters. The Manhattan art world then consisted of little more than the National Academy and some commercial shops down on Nassau Street where middling paintings were auctioned off like so much old furniture. There were a few art dealers, but their loyalty was to fashionable French artists, such as Adolphe-William Bouguereau, who painted female nudes with silky skin and cherubs fluttering in the sky. American artists were left to dispose of their work at group exhibitions, the most important one being the Academy’s annuals.
On April 27, 1865, less than two weeks after the assassination of President Lincoln, the Academy held an opening reception for its fortieth Annual Exhibition. Despite the recent tragedy, it proved to be a glittery social event. A writer for Harper’s Weekly took note of the “gay and flashing groups” of visitors. The women wore gowns; the men were in frocks and silk top hats. They gathered in sumptuous rooms with Persian carpets to look at paintings that were hung salon-style, from floor to ceiling. More than a hundred artists were in the show, all of them at the mercy of the Hanging Committee, as it was called, somewhat ominously. Artists who had prayed to God that their work would be granted a central eye-level spot were likely to have spent opening night wondering why their pictures had been relegated to the hazy margins. Humbler painters, on the other hand, were no doubt thrilled to find themselves in such prestigious company. The speakers that night included William Cullen Bryant, the long-bearded nature poet and newspaper editor, who praised the Academy as an institution that had finally reached its “ripe maturity.”4
So, for one all-too-brief moment, Hill was a man whose career appeared to be ascendant, a British émigré whose life intersected with the brightest stars in American art. Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, and Sanford Gifford were among his coexhibitors at the Academy, and he may have personally met them at the opening reception. Perhaps he shook their hands or even had a chat. Or perhaps he didn’t and was sick with regret when he got home that night.
This was the heyday of landscape painting in America and Bierstadt was the most celebrated of the lot. He painted sweeping views of the American West, scenes of tall cliffs and orange-y sunsets that seemed designed to show space at its most abundant, to insert miles of dewy vapor between you and the mountain peaks.
One of the mysteries of Hill’s career is that he did not endow his pictures with similar grandeur. Although he lived on top of the Hudson River—in Yonkers to the east and then in Hoboken to the west—he never painted a river view. Perhaps he was indifferent to romantic vistas. Perhaps, instead of inspiring him, they intimidated him. Distant views, especially those of mountains, diminish the observer to a tiny speck, to insignificance. Hill preferred things you can see at close range. Not views, exactly, but objects within your own space, the space you inhabit every day from the moment you get out of bed and feel the floorboards beneath your bare feet. He preferred his birds. He had a real sympathy for them. Not swift ones tearing through the sky, but birds that exhibited no desire to fly, that were content to bump around on the ground.
No photographs of Hill are known to survive. No letters either. As a result, his appearance and his ideas about painting remain largely unknown to us, and his life story must be jiggered together from family stories and whatever scant mention he received in newspapers and other documents. After appearing in two annuals at the National Academy in as many years, his name disappears for a while. It pops up again in 1868 and 1869, in small-print classified advertisements in The New York Herald. The ads were placed by the auctioneer Philip Levy, who sold “choice Oil Paintings” at the Artists’ Salesroom on Nassau Street; Hill was one of the artists in his stable.5
He surfaces next in the 1870 census, which describes him as a forty-year-old “artiste,” as if he were French. His wife gave her occupation as “keeping house.” They were no longer in Hoboken, but one town over, in Jersey City. The value of his personal estate was estimated at $300 and unlike some of his neighbors, who included a brick mason and a produce dealer, Hill did not own his house.
He had a large brood by now: six children ranging from an eighteen-year-old dau...

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Description du livre St Martin s Press, United States, 2014. Paperback. État : New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Welcome to Rockwell Land, writes Deborah Solomon, in this wise and spirited biography of the artist who provided America with a defining image of itself. As the star illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, Norman Rockwell mingled fact and fiction to capture the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of American democracy. Freckled Boy Scouts and their mutts, sprightly grandmothers, a young man standing up to speak at a town hall meeting, a little black girl named Ruby Bridges walking into an all-white school - here was an America whose citizens seemed to believe in equality and gladness for all. Who was Norman Rockwell? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking facade lay a surprisingly complex figure-a lonely man all too conscious of his inadequacies. He would eventually be treated by the influential psychotherapist Erik Erikson. In American Mirror, biographer and art critic Deborah Solomon draws on unpublished papers to explore the relationship between Rockwell s anguished creativity and his genius for reflecting American innocence. Brilliantly observed and vividly described, American Mirror explains why Norman Rockwell deserves to be remembered as a master of the first rank. N° de réf. du libraire AAS9781250056139

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Description du livre St Martin s Press, United States, 2014. Paperback. État : New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Welcome to Rockwell Land, writes Deborah Solomon, in this wise and spirited biography of the artist who provided America with a defining image of itself. As the star illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, Norman Rockwell mingled fact and fiction to capture the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of American democracy. Freckled Boy Scouts and their mutts, sprightly grandmothers, a young man standing up to speak at a town hall meeting, a little black girl named Ruby Bridges walking into an all-white school - here was an America whose citizens seemed to believe in equality and gladness for all. Who was Norman Rockwell? Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking facade lay a surprisingly complex figure-a lonely man all too conscious of his inadequacies. He would eventually be treated by the influential psychotherapist Erik Erikson. In American Mirror, biographer and art critic Deborah Solomon draws on unpublished papers to explore the relationship between Rockwell s anguished creativity and his genius for reflecting American innocence. Brilliantly observed and vividly described, American Mirror explains why Norman Rockwell deserves to be remembered as a master of the first rank. N° de réf. du libraire AAS9781250056139

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