"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.Read more...
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"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Deborah Solomon, a biographer and art critic, draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and documents to explore the relationship between Rockwell's despairing personality and his genius for reflecting America's brightest hopes.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."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-08-12
- Reviewer: Staff
In this well-paced, insightful biography of the iconic illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, art critic Solomon (Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell) reveals an enormously complicated man whose wholesome vision of America was not merely commercial kitsch, but art that sprung from an emotional life fraught with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. This sympathetic portrait depicts a repressed and humble Rockwell—a fastidious realist whose style and obsessions clashed with the values of modernism. Thrice married and an apathetic husband, he clearly preferred the companionship of male friends and was likely a closeted homosexual. Rockwell also had an obsessive-compulsive personality and received therapy from the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who became a crutch as his second wife slipped into manic alcoholism. Solomon effectively refutes common misperceptions of his work, showing that Rockwell did not promote stereotypes, suburban conformity, or cater his work to the Post’s demands. In addition, the author perceptively highlights the paintings’ narrative intelligence, comedy, and technical skill. Though Solomon opts to simplify and quickly dismiss criticism of Rockwell (such as Dwight Macdonald’s), her substantive narrative captures the abundant complexities of this unusual artist, and reclaims him as a master storyteller. 8 pages of color illus. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Nov.)
A century's worth of artistry
Art and photography are wonderful windows to the world through which we are able to see things in new, often unexpected ways. These five books all contain intriguing stories about a variety of artistic visions and are certain to delight any lucky recipients this holiday season.
You can’t help but cheer for Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York, a book that has drawn lots of recent attention. In 2010, after losing his job as a bond trader, Stanton decided to become a photographer, despite his lack of formal training. When the Georgia native went to New York City for the first time, he started an online photo album called “Humans of New York” (HONY). His album eventually morphed into a popular Tumblr blog, as he began pairing his portraits with brief stories or quotations from those he encountered.
This book, a compilation from his blog, is a fascinating tapestry of Big Apple personalities. A sveltely dressed defense lawyer holds his dog and says, “I always work my dog’s name into my closing argument.” A teenage boy in shorts says, “A kid wore shorts to school yesterday and the headmaster got really mad, so today the whole class wore them.” An incredibly frail man in a wheelchair turns out to be Banana George, who at age 92 set a world record as the oldest person to water-ski barefoot.
Stanton presents a colorful panorama of fashion and style, tattoos, wild shoes, Rollerblades, bikes, skateboards, hand holding, kisses, costumes, undying family devotion, babies, kids, old folks, visitors from afar, dancers, artists, dogs, performers and more.
A GLOBAL VISION
Sometimes a photograph becomes so embedded in our brains that we yearn to know the rest of the story. Award-winning photojournalist Steve McCurry takes readers on an amazing global journey in Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs. In 1978, McCurry left his job as a photographer at a Philadelphia newspaper and headed to India with a one-way ticket, his camera and film. Before long, he found himself dressed in native garb and sneaking over the border into war-torn Afghanistan. The rest of his journey has been prolific, earning him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for exceptional courage and enterprise in photographic reporting from abroad.
McCurry is best known for his portrait, The Afghan Girl, taken of a green-eyed schoolgirl in a refugee camp in Pakistan, used on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. The child’s piercing gaze is haunting, and it became one of the most recognizable photographs in the world. One chapter of this book tells the story of that particular expedition, and a remarkable follow-up in 2002, when McCurry returned to Pakistan to find his memorable subject, now married and a mother.
This is a book suitable for both browsing and focused reading. Other chapters recount, for instance, McCurry’s September 11 experiences in New York City, as well as trips to Tibet, India, Kuwait, Kashmir, Cambodia and more. Portraits of Tibetan children are intensely beautiful, and McCurry is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, where he traveled in 2007 to photograph a father suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis in a remote village. McCurry reflects: “I hope my photographs will inform people and inspire them, and in some way help those people who have been gracious enough to allow me into their lives.”
Art Is . . . is a little book in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art tries to tackle a big question: What is art? Nearly 200 artworks from the museum’s collection are paired with simple observations about the nature of art. For example, the words Art is advertisement are paired with a colorful 1880s ad for baking powder that features circus elephants and a clown. Art is woven is exemplified by a 15th-century tapestry of a unicorn. John Singer Sargent’s striking portrait of Madame X shows that art can be provocative. People of all ages will enjoy browsing through these lovely pages, and the small format makes the book all the more inviting—and the perfect stocking stuffer.
For many, Norman Rockwell’s paintings represent the epitome of American homespun goodness: moments big and small, sad and triumphant, filled with Boy Scouts, policemen, soldiers, doctors, grandmothers and all sorts of grinning, gangly kids. Biographer and art critic Deborah Solomon has written a comprehensive new biography of the master artist, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Ten years in the making, the book is a fascinating look at a man who was himself depression-prone, anxiety-ridden, obsessive and lonely, despite his three wives and three sons. Though Rockwell wasn’t an athlete himself, he seemed to prefer the company of physically strong men, a topic that Solomon delicately explores.
Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell was likely dyslexic and immersed himself in his drawings at an early age. His first cover for the Saturday Evening Post was published in 1916. It was well received, and he became a regular contributor. Sadly, the happy scenes he painted weren’t from his own life. In 1948, for instance, he painted a cover called Christmas Homecoming, in which all five members of his family appeared. In reality, he was living in Hollywood for a few months while his wife was in Vermont. Rockwell is a beloved figure in American art, and Solomon’s compelling portrait offers the attention and insight that this complex man deserves.
A LIFE OF BEAUTY & DESIGN
Equally comprehensive is Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty by Pat Moore. Less immediately recognized than Rockwell, Zeisel (1906-2011) was a highly influential ceramicist whose stylish designs revolutionized American dinnerware in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Hungary, she evolved from a pottery artist into an industrial designer when a German manufacturer hired her to design tableware in 1928. After being unjustly imprisoned for 16 months in Russia after a colleague falsely accused her of being part of a conspiracy to assassinate Stalin, Zeisel immigrated to the U.S. in 1938.
The works from Zeisel’s long, prolific career are not only beautiful, but also practical and useful. Her line of “Museum” dinnerware was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, the institution’s first show devoted to a woman designer. Crate and Barrel has sold her designs, and her ceramics, furniture, rugs and lighting can be found in a variety of museums around the world. Zeisel was a pioneer in bringing well-made, well-designed and affordable items to the marketplace. This volume is a loving look at both her life and her work, with stunning photographs that beautifully showcase Zeisel’s creations.