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  • The enigma of Norman Rockwell

  • Readers who would like to preserve their Rockwellian vision of Norman Rockwell should keep their distance from Deborah Solomon's new autobiography, "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell."
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  • Readers who would like to preserve their Rockwellian vision of Norman Rockwell should keep their distance from Deborah Solomon's new autobiography, "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell."
    But people who want to learn the complicated and sometimes disturbing story of a folksy yet masterful painter will find the New York City author's research intriguing.
    Overlooked and snubbed during most of his lifetime by the fine art establishment, Rockwell now has a secure, if unique, place in the history of American art.
    He continued on with his realistic, if sometimes caricatured, style through the dripping, slashing heyday of abstract expressionism, emerging on the other side to finally be recognized as a precursor to pop art, photorealism and other styles that once again accepted the human figure and real world objects. Throughout his life, Rockwell was insecure about his art, calling himself an illustrator rather than an artist.
    He was also deeply insecure about his physique and personal life. Rockwell's signature manner of painting boys — scrawny with ears poking out to the side — was how he viewed himself.
    Unable to compete with his athletic brother, Rockwell was a failure at sports. Gawky and underweight, he sat out World War I, instead drawing cartoons for the Navy. He later received an "inaptitude discharge" from his commander, who wrote that he was unsuited for hard manual labor. Solomon has uncovered numerous telltale signs that Rockwell may have been homosexual but never acted on his true desires, instead marrying women three times during his lifetime. Obsessed with his art, he thoroughly neglected his second wife — the mother to his children — and she turned to alcohol and prescription drugs.
    After bearing three sons and facing yet another pregnancy in a difficult marriage, she traveled to England with Rockwell in 1938 to obtain an abortion.
    Later that year, Rockwell painted a self portrait in which he sits in front of a blank canvas, trying to think of a cover illustration idea for yet another Saturday Evening Post. Showing a complete lack of sensitivity to his wife and revealing his own self-absorption, he painted a small sign saying "Due Date" on the canvas, a reference to always looming deadlines from the Post.
    Throughout his life, Rockwell befriended muscular, athletic men and developed close relationships with them. He often disappeared for weeks on trips in their company.
    He also became close with a series of young boys who posed as his models and did assorted chores in his studio. He was known to scout out schools, pulling boys out of class who caught his eye. Once the boys grew too old to serve as his models, he generally abandoned them. His paintings often feature small boys in the company of burly, hard-working men who are wise in the ways of the world but also sympathetic to the travails of boyhood.
    Solomon wrote she uncovered no evidence that Rockwell ever had sexual relationships with boys or adult men. Whether or not he had physical impulses he never acted upon remains an unknowable question.
    This puts the reader in a quandary. Perhaps Rockwell was physically attracted to men but had to hide his identity — knowing the truth could not be accepted by society at that time and a revelation of homosexuality would destroy his career. In this light, he is a figure who invites sympathy.
    On the other hand, the suggestion that he may have had ulterior motives toward his boy models — a suggestion the Rockwell family vehemently denies — is repulsive.
    It's a quandary that readers must decide for themselves, but anyone who delves into "American Mirror" will be left questioning everything they thought they knew about Rockwell and his paintings.
    Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.
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