Boy Scout campouts, backyard barbecues, Christmas trees, cheerful barbers: no artist quite converted slice-of-life realism into idealized portraits of the American dream as ably as Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), whose distinguished career art historian Laura Claridge captures just as ably in this welcome biography.
Rockwell, Claridge writes, had ambitions to be considered a great artist, but he abandoned them early on in the struggle to make a living through his abilities as an illustrator. He need not have worried about money quite as much as he did, Claridge suggests, for over his long career he produced more than 4,000 paintings and earned millions of dollars; still, as we learn, Rockwell was a complicated man, beset by all sorts of worries and more expressive on canvas than he ever was in the ordinary situations of life. His patriotic style evolved through his long engagement with the Saturday Evening Post, whose editor, George Horace Lorimer, used "as an instrument of Americanization," a means of establishing a national identity and ideals of "an American community made safe by a shared vision of right and wrong." In this and much else, Rockwell excelled, achieving early and lasting success though never earning much respect from critics and other arbiters of taste--even though, Claridge notes, Rockwell had all the requisite irony, and certainly all the necessary skills.
For the last few years, a new generation of critics has been reconsidering Rockwell's career and viewing his work more favorably. Claridge's gracefully written biography will give them still more reason to see him in a positive light. It will also afford those who already cherish his art new insight into an American master. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Claridge (Romantic Potency: The Paradox of Desire) is a former English professor at Annapolis now writing books on "British romanticism, Modernism, gender, and psychoanalytic theory," according to the publisher's bio. This unusual mix is ill-suited to approaching America's most beloved Saturday Evening Post cover illustrator. From the start, an oblique, brusque writing style fails to spell things out: "Norman Rockwell was not sadistic. He was, however, expert at creating desire, both in his public and in his private life." Chapters like "Urban Tensions, Pastoral Relief" are rife with two-ton sentences, like "Major life changes seemed consistently in Rockwell's purview during this period, including the professional leadership he took for granted," or "In 1935, Rockwell was offered a prestigious commission that reminded him of the historical antecedents that had motivated his love of illustration." Readers are given much detail about each of Rockwell's homes, without any sense of why this information might be useful or revealing. And readers learn that, in 1978, not only did Rockwell die, but "Margaret Mead, Hubert Humphrey, Golda Meir, and Charlie McCarthy" also bit the dust. With an undiscerning and unhelpful bibliography, this book nevertheless scorns reputable art critics like John Canaday, who is compared to "an arrogant graduate student." Yet the author unaccountably praises Rockwell's typically heavy-handed portrait of tolerance that shows "a Jewish man being shaved by a New England Protestant barber, while a black man and a Roman Catholic priest waited their turn." Rockwell's millions of fans and other readers are better off with previous illustrated coffee-table tomes, while those who need convincing will not be won over by minutiae about the artist's senility and other lackluster details in this misbegotten project. 16 pages b&w and color photos.
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