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On Deborah Solomon's Norman Rockwell

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American Mirror, Deborah Solomon's new biography of Norman Rockwell, has become controversial. But what is the controversy about?

Simple. Solomon has presented a dishonest picture of Rockwell's life--one that paints him as a pedophile who was so self-absorbed and withdrawn from his own family that he drove his first two wives (and one of his boy models) to suicide--and some critics are pointing out with clarity exactly where and how she goes wrong. (Just one example: my detailed review.) That's the controversy.

But some commentators are pretending that the controversy is quite different. Some will tell you that Solomon has presented an honest picture of Rockwell's life--one that doesn't accept the airbrushed, spic and span image of Rockwell that many people seem to take for granted--and that Rockwell's family and fans are responding hatefully, angrily, or otherwise purely emotionally to this honest picture. Solomon herself and various Solomon backers, such as Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, or Alan Bisbort say this sort of thing.

This is false. To see this, all you need to do is look at what Solomon's critics have said. It's as simple as that.

But there's a little more to the story. As I said, Solomon's defenders are pretending that the critics are merely angry about Solomon's supposed sexual revelations about Rockwell. So they have offered a reply to their imagined version of the criticisms. The gist of their reply is: Look, this book is notable for its "heretofore unexplored" ideas about Rockwell. The "sex stuff" occupies only a few paragraphs and shouldn't be the center of the discussion. The book's main purpose is to establish Rockwell's status as a real artist, and it does just that.

And so rests the defense.

However, it is false that the sexual allegations are confined to a few paragraphs and somehow hermetically sealed away from the rest of the content. Anyone who reads her book (or just my review) attentively will see otherwise. Sex is everywhere, particularly in the interpretations of the artworks. Solomon herself has actually taken the Baghdad Bob approach in trying to downplay the prominence of sex, claiming in an interview that "All I say is that he painted men more than women."

Moreover, even if you ignore the fact that it's glaringly false, the claim that the sex part of the book is minimal actually undercuts the claim that the book is full of "heretofore unexplored ideas." For just about the only really original thing in Solomon's book, outside of the reporting of perfectly trivial facts like some of Rockwell's phone numbers (yes, really), are the absurd claims about his personal sexuality.

I say this because despite the pretense that this is the first critical biography of Rockwell, it is not. Laura Claridge's was the first. Claridge's book is more nuanced, more docile to the evidence, and more original. It is not perfect. A great deal of what goes wrong with Solomon's account of Rockwell went wrong first in Claridge's. She is sensible enough not to dream up any supposed pedophilia, but she does give us the same prickly, withdrawn, self-absorbed Rockwell that we get from Solomon. Solomon doesn't produce anything really heretofore unexplored along these lines--she just exaggerates what Claridge had already done. So if the sex stuff did occupy only a few paragraphs of Solomon's book, then the heretofore unexplored ideas of Solomon's book would largely reduce to those few paragraphs.

But it doesn't stop there. The sex stuff is original in the biographical sense--Solomon is the first to call Rockwell a pedophile--but not in the artistic sense. Richard Halpern is the source of the hypersexualized take on Rockwell's paintings. Solomon's creepy but risible interpretations of Rockwell's works are, for the most part, simply echoes of Halpern's. If it's on the back of these interpretations that Solomon supposedly manages to establish Rockwell as a real artist, then she can hardly take credit for originality there, either. Not that there's any credit here. This is the "that's what she said" school of art criticism at work. (I've always thought Rockwell's status as a real artist was self-evident anyway, and so doesn't need to be established by any fancy critics. But if he does need a critical boost, you can find much more sensible ideas about him in the various writings of Dave Hickey, Karal Ann Marling. Claridge, Virginia Mecklenberg--possibly even in my book-in-progress on Rockwell's art, Lift Up Thine Eyes.)

There's more. One journalist, at any rate, has mentioned an uncharacteristically sensitive account of one of Rockwell's artworks in Solomon's book. Lennie Bennett praises a "new connection" that Solomon made between one of Rockwell's artworks, and a troubling incident in his life. Bennett sought in vain in Solomon's footnotes to find out where Solomon got the story of this incident--answer: she got the story from Claridge. And she got the "new connection" from Claridge, too. So, really, the one and only sensitive interpretation of Rockwell's art in Solomon's book is cribbed from Claridge's. (Incidentally, I alerted Bennett to this weeks ago. Her review has not been corrected. It has, however, been reprinted in other newspapers in its original form, preserving and spreading Bennett's error.)

When I began to study Norman Rockwell's work last spring, one of the first things I found out in my literature search was that there was an exciting new biography of Rockwell coming out in the fall. I waited eagerly for something like seven months for this book. Others, such as Solomon's publishers--Farrar, Straus, and Giroux--waited more than a decade. I was, to say the least, terribly disappointed with the payoff after my seven month wait. Solomon's publishers ought to be more than disappointed with the payoff after their much longer wait. They ought to be ashamed. But so should those who are still repeating her thoroughly refuted claims.