Customer Reviews: Norman Rockwell: A Life
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on December 15, 2001
I've been an illustrator for 40 years. My mentor was a contemporary of Rockwell, also an illustrator and portrait painter who was at the Art Student's League at about the same time as NR. I was all set to like this book after viewing the attractive and articulate author on BookNotes. It turned out to be a chore to read. I'm surprised that Random didn't do more fact checking or editing. It is not so much narrative as it is cut-and-paste word processing. Consider this line for example on page 394: "But at least one son, Jarvis -- who, on finding that he had did not fit particularly well into the Air Force ...." Where are the copy editors when you need them?
Then there are the significant errors, as in the following: [page 209] "First, he recalled briefly the beauty contest he had judged a few years before with Clare Briggs the cartoonist and Nell Brinkley the actress." A simple search on Google will confirm that Nell Brinkley (1886-1944) was also famous as a cartoonist who drew pretty young things for the New York Evening Journal, and not an actress.
On page 300, the author describes a painting of Willie Gillis in church: "In the three pews, shown, only Willie's torso and face are visible; the shoulder of a man in front, and the arm of a man behind, their respective officer and upper enlisted stripes prominent...." This is a curious description coming from someone who taught at the Naval Academy. There is no man shown in front, just the shoulder boards of a US Navy commander. As for the upper enlisted stripes, she should have said hash marks and the distinctive stripes of a First Sergeant (three stripes, two rockers, and a diamond).
The author continually refers to Rockwell's clients as patrons, a term I have never heard used by illustrators or other so-called commercial artists. She also goes to great length to chastise NR for continually accepting more work than he had time to do. This has always been common practice. Some clients bail out after reviewing sketches or comprehensives, or for purely business reasons, which is why kill-fees are used to protect freelancers from spinning their wheels. Anyone who has ever engaged carpenters or other tradesmen knows that they, too, overbook. People who work for themselves have to overbook, if they expect to survive.
The author, as academic, devotes much of the book to psychobabble and pronouncements from on high, making it seem that the Golden Age of Illustration had passed Rockwell by. She refers to the obvious giants such as Pyle, Wyeth, Parrish, and others, who rode in on the waves of four-color process printing as it was first perfected for print production. But consider that Rockwell was the most famous illustrator ever, with an enormous following, and this added years to the Golden Age of Illustration as technical advances continued. It also added many more excellent illustrators, Rockwell's fellow instructors at the Famous Artists School to name a few.
NR's buddies in Arlington, Vermont -- Mead Schaeffer, and John Atherton -- are mentioned often in that period of Rockwell's life, but they are never adequately fleshed out as individuals, Then, we are told that they left Arlington without explaining why.
There are no examples of their work. There are two signatures of photo reproductions reduced to sizes too small to be of much pictorial value. One would really need Arthur Guptill's book on Rockwell, or another compilation of NR's work to understand what the author is talking about as she describes paintings that are either too small to be studied, or do not appear at all.
I wish the text had been cut by a third, elimating all those distant cousins, who add little, or nothing, to the story, and two signatures of full page 4/c process illustrations added, even if it would mean an increase to the cover price.
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on August 26, 2002
I opened this book greatly anticipating the read only to be disappointed by the author. I gave 2 stars for subject, 0 stars for the writing. She spent so much time exploring every relative from his distant past as well as someone only confused with a distant past relative that by the time she got down to Norman you had dug though many other Rockwells, which really didin't add to your knowledge of who Norman really was. Also the writing style took away from the subject matter. The style was so different than what you would expect to hear from Norman Rockwell himself. He was a "Regular Joe" and this is written so that you have to dig through the flowery phrasing to get to the meat of the idea. Instead of spending my time enjoying the story, I was working through the writing style. I expected a book on this subject to be a reflection of the man. It is too bad this author felt the need to impress with her turn of a phrase instead of letting her subject make the impression. I'm surprised an editor didn't red pencil a good part of the manuscript and give notes as to phrasing.
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on October 29, 2001
I've grown up with Norman Rockwell images as part of my life, like so many other Americans--but I've never known anything about the man himself. So I picked this up (great discount from Amazon!) and I just have to write in now and say what an amazing story this is! I'm never going to look at a Rockwell illustration the same way again. I don't have time to get into lengthy descriptions except to say this artist had a long and fascinating life that pretty much spanned the 20th century, and this author does a wonderful job describing both his life and times. As a fine arts grad student, I was particularly fascinated to read how Rockwell's incredible skill at drawing was sort of his downfall. He was such a successful illustrator that he never got the chance to be a poor starving artist and find himself. The downside of early success... who knew?
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in art, or not--it's really for anyone who loves a great biography and a great American story.
ACR, RISD student
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on August 27, 2011
I found this book very difficult to read for the following reasons. First, the text is in serious need of a good editor and could be cut by 20 to 30%. Second, the prose is difficult to read not because it contains profound thoughts, but that the sentences seem to be "tangled" and eccentrically constructed. Third there is too much psycho nonsense. Even professional psychiatrists tend to tread very carefully when discussing subjects that they have never met - Anthony Storrs on Sir Winston Churchill or the late John Mack on T. E. Lawrence. Psycho babble about Norman Rockwell doesn't teach us anything and only makes the author seem foolish.
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on August 28, 2012
It's a big FAT book, which would be promising if it were packed full of vivid anecdotes and quotations from the principals' letters and diaries.

But what it's packed with are the author's wordy surmises about what the principals must have been thinking. When she chooses to include contemporary commentary, she almost always has an opinion about what it REALLY meant (usually something Freudian.) When she quotes Rockwell himself, she frequently downgrades his statements as being inaccurate or untrue for one self-serving reason or another. Her descriptions of Rockwell seem to change in order to match whatever impression SHE has in mind at any given time: was he a hopelessly unattractive nerd/curmudgeon, or was he lithe and athletic and charming/seductive? Did he self-centeredly overlook his wife Mary's emotional needs, or hold her dear as the one valuable critical voice in his life? And speaking of criticism, the author takes a lot of the pleasure out of Rockwell's work with her opinionated, dismissive interpretations.

And HOW MANY TIMES must we hear about the randy uncle who died of syphilis?

I'm very disgruntled with the tone and the style of this book and recommend that you seek Rockwell information elsewhere.
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on March 22, 2002
After reading Claridge's bio on Norman Rockwell, I had a far greater sense of what made the man tick. Claridge explains in great detail Rockwell's self-doubts, insecurities, goals, and personal needs. Rockwell's struggles between practicing "fine" arts and illustration lived with him his entire life, and Claridge gives insight behind the cause of those struggles. The book also succeeded in describing the art world Rockwell inhabited, his influences, and his family relationships. Claridge's Rockwell comes across as an extremely humane man, trying to be as nice as possible to all who crossed his path, while keeping a protective shield around him, so as not to interfere with his artistic productivity. As someone brought up in the television generation, I also appreciated Claridge explaining the important and influential role The Saturday Evening Post played within day-to-day middle class American life.
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on December 20, 2001
This book totally opened my eyes to the fascinating world of illustration, let alone to Norman Rockwell himself. I am amazed that the author could include such learning and erudite information in such an engaging narrative format. I felt by the end of the book that I had personally known Rockwell. I am no novice to the art world, but this study left me far better informed than I was before I began it. Kudos to the author.
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on October 30, 2001
Rockwell's life and art were much more complicated than popular history would have you believe and this book really gets down to the nitty-gritty. I was particularly interested in reading about his early history and how different it was from the ideal Americana that people usually associate with him. Definitely an eye-opener and a great read!
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on April 1, 2011
Critics differ on the importance and relevance of illustration as real art, and lamentations continue endlessly about artists compromising their craft to earn money. Whatever your views on these points, Rockwell's images shaped popular culture for several generations and many of them, especially from the WWII period, remain iconic.

Although there are some factual errors as noted by other reviewers here, the research is still very thorough and well organized, and a reader will gain awareness and better understanding of the environment that shaped Rockwell's career choices and his art, plus some of the other people and organizations active during the same period such as Jack Atherton, and the magazine Saturday Evening Post.

The two reasons I've assigned 3 stars are:

1)There is too much psychoanalysis, delivered a dramatic tone better suited to a romance novel. I can see no value in guessing emotional reactions decades after the fact, and applying contemporary conventions seems even more pointless. A robust edit should have reduced text quantity by around 20%.

"How to make sense of the family logic that seemed irrational, even then? His deliverance would come from....Charles Dickens" (p51) and
"But in 1930, things were clear: Norman Rockwell was floundering, frantically looking for stopgap measures to help him avoid looking within." (p221)

2)The selected art representations included do not fully coordinate with the book. Several very important works such as Family Tree are discussed extensively but not depicted, and there are a couple images included (The Meeting, Love Ouanga) that are not mentioned at all in the text. It would have been worth the cost to expand the illustrations, in a book about an illustrator! Ensuring that the selected illustrations were part of the narrative seems obvious from an editing perspective. There is a point made by other reviewers that the images are too small to fully appreciate or analyze. My view is that even small pictures still provide a bit of helpful context for the discussion.

One other note - I believe that one of the glowing reviews included here on Amazon has been posted by the author of the book, using her husband's last name. If you are relying on reviews to make a decision about reading then you may want to mark that one out.
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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2003
This book gets a solid three stars for its interesting subject matter and honest approach in storytellng.
Norman Rockwell, unlike his 'perfect' scenes of life in America, did not live a perfect life. His story is filled whith many of the challenges and obstacles that all of us face in our everyday lives... Perhaps that's why his work comes across with such clarity and truthfulness.
Starting out as an ad illustrator at a young age, he moved up in status over the years until his work was considerd not only the best in modern commercial illustration but some even began calling it "Fine Art". How did he accomplish such a feat? Hard work. Everyday in the studio he would put in 10-12 hours... working hard to get the next five projects done because ten more are waiting and they are 6-12 months overdue. (Norman was a workaholic who had a hard time saying no to requests.)
If you like his artwork, or if you want to read a story about pure determinitaion and persistance (...of Cal Ripkin caliber), scan your eyes across a few hundred pages of this one. It was certainly worth the time I spent reading it.
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