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Narrative Connections, the Heart of an Illustrator
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
-Joan Didion, The White Album
Norman Rockwell was not sadistic. He was, however, expert at creating desire, both in his public and in his private life. His family, who too often felt themselves to be "living out the cover of a Saturday Evening Post," as his oldest son, Jarvis, once expressed it, were routinely seduced by his invitations of intimacy, though the artist established a subtle but impermeable distance when they tried to respond. His real sensitivity was reserved for his art, his empathy lavished on his easel, day after day, for over six decades. As do many artists, he tended to exorcise his internal tensions in his paintings, so that the energy that might have been expended on the work of rearing three sons born within six years of each other exploded into the narrative stories on his canvas instead. In the summer of 1954, for instance, at the height of his powers, Rockwell undertook a Saturday Evening Post cover of an aspiring artist studying master works in a museum, The Art Critic, published on April 16, 1955. The cover shows a young man scrutinizing a woman's décolletage in the head-and-shoulders portrait in front of him, while on the adjacent wall, prosperous Dutch burghers in an Old Master painting appear to start with indignation and amusement as they watch the impudent student. The model for the student was Rockwell's son Jarvis (named after the illustrator's father); for the portrait the young critic studies so assiduously, Rockwell used his wife (and Jarvis's mother), Mary.
The timing of this particular painting, in terms of familial harmony, was way off. Mary had been struggling valiantly against alcoholism and depression-possibly a bipolar illness-for at least five years. The family had been racked by the demise of their formerly predictable upper-middle-class home, as the mother, previously the anchor of their household, suddenly needed all the tending. Boarding school plans had been upended in an attempt to rally round her, trips were rescheduled, tremendous amounts of money were poured into treatments, and finally, a permanent move was undertaken from Arlington, Vermont, where the family had lived since 1939, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, when it became clear that Mary's treatments at the Austen Riggs Center would be long-term. Unknown to the family, as they struggled to adjust to Mary's illness Rockwell suffered a simultaneous spate of suicidal thoughts.
Jarvis, however, could give both his parents a run for their money, and in terms of expensive sessions with mental healthcare specialists, he did exactly that. From his earliest years, he was a particularly complicated member of the family: "I never caught on to what you're supposed to do in school," he remembers. "So it kind of never made sense to me, from the beginning." Born in 1932, by 1938 Jarvis had been displaced by two younger brothers, and as he approached first grade, his parents were contemplating yet another major dislocation in his young life. The next year, they would decide to leave the sophisticated enclave of New Rochelle, New York, to make their home in Arlington, Vermont. A greater contrast is hard to imagine, at least on the face of it. New Rochelle fed on the overspill from Manhattan, seeing itself as a haven for worldly artists, entertainers, and intellectuals who wanted to be within commuting distance of the city, while enjoying the yacht club environment of what many treated as a wealthy distant suburb of the city. Even at his young age, Jarvis would feel the shock of adjusting to a bucolic life after the faster pace of his earlier years.
Between the move at age nine and posing for The Art Critic immediately prior to his twenty-third birthday, Rockwell's eldest son re-trod many of his father's steps, though too often, to Jarvis, they seemed to be missteps. He, too, had dropped out of high school; he, too, attended not only art school but his father's own, the Art Students League in New York City. And though "Pop," the name the boys conferred on their father when they became adolescents, ostensibly encouraged Jarvis's efforts, praising lavishly to others his son's work, the young artist grew up feeling distant from the father whose somewhat vague friendliness left his son desperate for a closer connection.
By 1954, Jarvis had been in and out of art schools, the Air Force, and psychiatric treatment. He was, in the lingo of a later age, trying to find himself. And he was trying hard to understand how to position himself as an aspiring artist in an art world that rejected as inconsequential the achievements of his father, whose technique Jarvis at least deeply appreciated, but whose storytelling in oils found expression, after all, only on mass-reproduced magazine covers. As soon as he was finished posing for Pop this time, Jarvis planned to head off for the Boston Museum of Art School, a more competitive program than any his father had attended.
No account exists of Rockwell's inspiration for The Art Critic. Preparing even more feverishly than he did for most of his covers, however, he went through dozens of charcoal sketches, color renderings, and redirection of the mise-en-scène. The flirtatious, attractive woman for whom Mary Rockwell posed took the form of at least ten variations alone, from an early frowning hausfrau to the beautiful damsel that preceded the final image. More impressive still was the illustrator's long indecision over what to place in the frame on the museum's right wall. He completed two detailed paintings in contrasting Dutch styles; in addition to the group portrait of the men, he executed fully a landscape genre scene.
Until the last moment, Rockwell alternated between the two pieces, unsure which effect he preferred. In the charcoal on board that he drew immediately prior to his oil sketch, the painting to the right of the student critic is the Dutch landscape, with windmill, elaborate forestry, and tiny figures in the background. But in the end, he chose the parody of a Dutch group scene, which historically implied the weight of patriarchal authority. Vacillating between a genre that suggested a domestic tranquillity and one that invoked the power of his fathers, Rockwell went with the idea of ancestral censure and brought down the full force of his family and aesthetic pedigree on the poor befuddled art student, hapless in the ways of the world and of art.
The student himself metamorphosed from an initially disheveled outsider into a more suave Easterner: "Finally, my father changed my face so much it hardly looks like me," the model remembers. In one of Rockwell's earliest pen-and-charcoal sketches, first renderings, Jarvis is given long uncombed hair, a soft, almost nonexistent jawline, and made to appear nearly myopic, his glasses sliding down his nose, as he stands within an inch of a startled-looking housewife in order to study her portrait. He is, in other words, presented as a sloppy, unkempt beatnik, an identity he had in fact been fostering.
The finished painting consists instead of a slender, well-groomed slightly droopy-lidded young man, painterly accoutrements of his trade under his arm, standing in front of a portrait in the Netherlandish section of a museum. This eager neophyte, seen only in profile-in contrast to the frontal views of the Dutch group portrait-exhibits a supercilious facial expression and an aristocratic sharp chin, accentuated by his proprietary leaning in toward the woman's portrait. The ersatz sophistication is offset by the childlike way that he nearly squeezes his legs together, his feet perfectly aligned on the tile floor, their toes almost pushed upward by their owner's rigid lower body. Rockwell's frequent device of exaggerating the subject's derriere is employed here to undercut any authority the young art critic might have claimed otherwise; instead, the viewer of the cover is invited to assume the superior, knowing position: benign, wise interpreter of the scene.
The finished painting positions the oddly disruptive parody of the Dutch Masters group scene to the right of the voyeuristic student, in the pictorial plane of his palette and easel, perpendicular to his open art history book with its reproduction of the woman's portrait. Rockwell's deliberately formulaic Old Master painting, its antecedents the famous group portraits by both Frans Hals and Rembrandt, revisited his own earlier family romance. His admiration for seventeenth-century Netherlandish painters was one of the few passions he shared with his parents, with whom he continued to live for several years while he went to art school. His father's own not inconsequential sketches clearly were modeled on studies of the Dutch and English countryside; and the domestic painting that lost out to the group portrait in The Art Critic was strikingly similar to the older man's homey sketches.
Father-son issues not resolved in their own time passed down to Jarvis and Norman Rockwell. What part mockery versus a more gentle condescension plays in the psychodrama of The Art Critic remains incalculable to its principal model. It was not entirely clear to Rockwell's oldest son how much his father really respected his progeny's work. Rockwell could slide from speaking of "Jerry's" terrific modern art one minute to referring to his son's local installation piece as the "string mess up on the hill" the next. Probably both attitudes were real, given Rockwell's lifelong ambivalence toward abstraction. And Jerry, since late adolescence, had begun to deprecate his father's painting, his newfound superiority hard to hide from Pop. The son's claim to know, his right even to judge his father, takes shape in The Art Critic in the proprietary posture of the student, bending over the detail of the portrait with his magnifying glass in one hand, his easel, palette, and reproduction of the painting in the other. A slightly weary expression, sandwiched between smugness and an unguarded absorption, captures the poseur's incoherence, the lack of an authentic center. His innocence is further compromised by the hint of pursed lips, as if ready to kiss the painting. Worse still, the young artist is magnifying the brooch perilously close to the woman's décolletage; the smirk she has assumed seems a cross between an admonishment and a come-on.
Jarvis Rockwell does not like to talk about this painting. "It was very unpleasant for me," he says. "It's true that my mother and I never posed together for this piece. But that's why I realized that there was all this stuff going on, and that my father, on some level, was too polite or too timid to force our faces in it literally. As usual, we were living on the cover of a magazine." Jarvis was embarrassed to contribute to the painting's ribald implications, since his mother's bosom was the object of his gaze. "My father made it very plain that the sexual joke was important to the painting," he remembers. What Mary Rockwell thought of the whole thing goes unnoted; loyal wife of a prominent artist, she buried any conflicts she had at the time with alcohol and pills. The millions of readers who welcomed that April 16, 1955, Saturday Evening Post cover into their homes didn't realize the family drama writ large that the cover shared with them, Rockwell's other-and at least equally important-family. Questions of influence, of talent, of generation, of authority, and of the vexed center of family love all reverberate as one painting within the painting relates to the other, and the parodies and substitutions and historical references feast on one another.
What tale would Rockwell have claimed to be telling in The Art Critic? Norman Rockwell told stories. That was his job as an illustrator, and over the decades he stressed that, for him, the hardest part of his work always was coming up with ideas to narrate in the absence of a text written by others. And Post covers, as he said on more than one occasion, had to be read within a few seconds, the manifest meaning laid out through the artful accretion of details. Given those thematic elements of the painting that remained unchanged from his earliest pencil sketch, The Art Critic asks to be understood as, at the least, a young, earnest, overconfident art student yielding up his professionalism to female pulchritude. In the process, his artistic and historical elders gently show their superiority, through their mock outrage and hints of laughter that acknowledge this normal misguided stage of youth. Themes of looking, illicit views and presumptuous vantage points among them, knit together the young art critic, daring to judge, and the Dutch ancestors-woman and man, the old and the young, the new and the dated. Final authority is granted to the viewer-the wise spectator looking in on the picture who is expected, surely, to smile at the too-earnest artist who is still miles, decades, ages away from the achievements of his father(s).
Did Rockwell actually reflect upon the template of family desire and ambition embedded in this painting too fraught for his sons to enjoy? Of course not. But we know that by 1954, Norman Rockwell had been put through the wringer in terms of delving into his own psyche. At least as important, he had always developed his narrative line through accretive yokings, visual puns, and meaning that begot meaning, an almost classical, psychoanalytically oriented process of free association.
In the late 1940s, for instance, he explained for the benefit of the students he was then teaching that "in a picture which tells a story, the idea itself probably is the most important element of the entire illustration." For an instructor who insisted on the primary importance of technique, of mastering the principles of traditional draftsmanship and color, this was an illuminating statement. And it is a position that he reiterated over the decades, usually adding wryly, as he did here, that he had always found this the hardest part of his profession-coming up with a good idea. After all, he expounded, it wasn't enough to come up with something that the artist alone found meaningful; for an illustrator, a narrative idea had to possess near instant recognition for the audience. "Usually I get my best ideas as I shave in the morning," Rockwell repeated throughout the years. "I draw them on three-by-five squares of paper, then discard them until I get one I think I can go with."
That crucial next stage-developing a nugget into a narrative gold mine-involved a long associative habit of thinking, free ranging and unlimited in the directions in which it took the artist. He shared with the students enrolled at the Famous Artists' School an example of this process, in which to begin the sequence he sketched a lamppost, "which always gets me started," although "where I will end I never know." Rockwell travels through ten more vignettes before that end point arrives, and, along the way, he plays with a drunken soldier, who morphs into a dutiful one sewing his pants, to a picture of the sailor's mother mending them instead-with the family dog at hand; to the sailor transformed into a boy who tends to his sick dog, to a vet and dog, to doctors braving blizzards, to a sick girl missing out on a dance, to a square dance, to a cobbler fixing shoes, to a lone cowboy-"shoes recall cowhide, cowhide recalls cows, cows recall cowboys. Still no idea so I must keep going until I finally do get one." At this point, he stops, assuming that the students get the point.
From the Hardcover edition.