The Greatest Painter Who Never Lived

The Facts of Life, Norman Rockwell

It’s a sad fact that in the United States one can defame the reputation of a dead person with impunity and his or her loved ones and heirs can do nothing to stop it. Such is the case with Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, which characterizes Rockwell as a complex, depressed, repressed gay man whose repression led to pedophiliac urges expressed in his paintings.

A Scout is Helpful, 1941, Norman Rockwell
A nice person—one not looking for duplicity everywhere—would agree with Rockwell’s granddaughter’s assessment: “My grandfather was a charming, kind, generous man; his models, without exception, say that posing for him was one of the highlights of their lives. He had a marvelous sense of humor, was a remarkable observer of people and human behavior…” 
Rockwell was a fantastically successful illustrator because his ear was perfectly tuned to the 20th century zeitgeist, which celebrated work, home, family and children. Of course, Deborah Solomon is in perfect tune with the zeitgeist of our times, which holds that there is nothing good in this world. Nor is there any privacy, apparently. 
The Babysitter, 1927, Norman Rockwell
Abigail Rockwell has done an excellent job of debunking Solomon’s sources, but she gets little traction in modern media, because she—unfortunately—is working at cross-purposes to our modern world. We like knowing that others are ‘no better than they should be.’
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, by Norman Rockwell. Of this iconic painting, Solomon said, “You know who else is masturbating? Rosie the Riveter. Women to him [Rockwell] were sexual demons. Over here, the riveting-gun penis on her lap, and in the background these pulsating red waves. Even though she’s a worker she’s not working, she’s just eating and satisfying her desires.”
But why is it being gay is so frequently the ‘secret sin’ of which artists are accused? (For a start, see Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci; never mind that their culture cannot be transcribed literally into our culture.) And why did a publisher like Farrar, Straus and Giroux publish an outrageous, unsubstantiated claim of a putative link between homosexuality and pedophilia? If that had come from the Right, the howling would have been deafening.

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Libeling the dead

Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), 1965, Norman Rockwell
In America, the dead can’t sue for defamation, so a writer who makes outrageous statements about the deceased can’t be touched in a court of law. In the past, we were protected by an unspoken code of decency: a publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux would not have taken a biography like American Mirror, and it wouldn’t be nominatedfor a PEN award.
Saying Grace, 1951, Norman Rockwell
“The thrill of [Norman Rockwell’s] work is that he was able to use a commercial form to thrash out his private obsessions,” writes author Deborah Solomon. And what, according to Solomon, were those obsessions? That he was a repressed homosexual with pedophilic impulses.
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, Norman Rockwell
Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail did a great job debunking Solomon’s book in this column, and it’s worth reading in its entirety.
I once made the mistake of mentioning to an instructor in Manhattan that I love Norman Rockwell’s work. That was the first experience I had of the animus some intellectuals direct toward Rockwell, who—as a ‘mere’ illustrator—achieved fame and fortune most of us can only dream about.
The Scoutmaster, 1956, Norman Rockwell
Why is it that men who paint children are suspect? A decade ago, we saw the samephenomenon with Caravaggio. It’s now received wisdom that he was a bisexual pederast—a theory that totally ignores the painterly and social conventions of his time, and is almost purely speculative (since there is very little historical record of his life). This desire to tear down icons reflects less on the artists in question than on the art world’s deeply rooted sexism and its own twisted desires.
Freedom from Fear (one of the Four Freedoms series), 1943, Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell is being accused of pedophilia at the same time as other intellectuals attempt to destigmatizethat perversion. This is part of the vast value-leveling going on in our society today, an insistence that no ideals or values deserve to be elevated above others. By making Rockwell look tawdry, we can dismiss all those hokey mid-century values he painted: family, patriotism, courage, equality, freedom, faith.

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