The Inner Angst of Norman Rockwell
The Reconstruction period after the Civil War evolved into a construction period. The construction was in the shapes and values of Americans that were the genesis of today’s capitalistic, material-driven society. As the 1880’s and subsequent decades rolled on, America made a rapid and steady shift from a sustenance, agrarian economy, where the population consumed what it produced, to an industrialized, consumer-based one, with an excess of production. Improvements in transportation and communication linked the coasts and continents. Meanwhile, the population began a large-scale migration from the country to cities. A national agenda was set that glorified the pursuit of tangible goods and a comfortable lifestyle.
A Protestant, east-coast elite that controlled industry and mass media led the moral direction. The rise and influence of national magazines such as Godey’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Pearson’s, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post were a major part of this movement. Improvements in printing and distribution enabled publications to reach more people more efficiently than ever before. And ads filled their pages. Magazines were the first national medium to be fed by and grown on the back of advertising.
Total gross advertising magazine revenue almost quadrupled in just over a decade, from $58.1 million in 1918 to nearly $200 million in 1929. In that decade, Corporate America became adept at influencing the national consciousness. As President Calvin Coolidge said, “It is the most potent influence in adapting and changing the habits and modes of life, affecting what we eat, what we wear, and the work and play of the whole nation …. Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade.”
Illustrators depicted the image. The first half of the 20th century was the golden age of illustration. Top artists such as Thomas Nast, Will Bradley, Maxfield Parrish, Edward Penfield, Charles Gibson, N.C. Wyeth, Charles Remington, J.C. Leyendecker, J.M. Flagg, Howard Christy, John Held and Norman Rockwell were the luminaries of their day. They were extremely well paid for their instantly recognizable work. These illustrators weren’t just artists; they were public figures whose lives were followed as closely as socialites are today.
This was the cultural framework as the Great Depression hit America in 1929. The depression walked with a heavy step, putting millions out of work. Mobile tent cities called Hoovervilles sprang up as people hit the road in search of jobs. Still, there was a consciousness of the pursuit of comfort fueled by the work ethic. A wide swath across the country embraced it. Ad agencies painted images filled with creature comforts and security and happiness. And hard work was the way to get there. It was a lifestyle straight out of Protestant central casting. This was aspirational lifestyle advertising — campaigns that stressed the bliss, love and success that come with purchase of the product. The 1930s saw waves of ads to counter personal afflictions from bad breath to dishpan hands. Mail-order courses urged us to improve our vocabularies or learn to draw. The phrases American Dream and American Way of Life emerged in the 1930’s. They cast a mold of material satisfaction.
Rockwell was deep inside the lion’s den. The illustrator is synonymous with his vignettes of happy, mid-American folk and their touching, often-comical situations. His covers for the Saturday Evening Post are his most famous examples of his world of honest people and wholesome values, where the bonds of family and friends ran strong and crime and poverty didn’t exist. Rockwell also enjoyed a long career painting for a wide variety of advertisers and other organizations, from life insurance companies and chewing gum to the U.S. government and the Boy Scouts. He was a mercenary with a palette, perpetuating and growing the machine that set the economic agenda and social mores. He depicted an affluent, consumer-driven lifestyle, feeding the new breed’s thirst for physical and symbolic comfort.
“I paint life as I would like it to be …. Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it …. If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.”
However, while Rockwell’s paintings depicted a bucolic charm, he was filled with angst. He painted a life that ran counter to his upbringing and reality around him. He suffered extended bouts of deep depression several times in his life, unknown to even close friends.
Why is this? Why would someone who reached the top of his field and achieved worldwide fame be filled with such torment?
One reason is that he never really did achieve the personal goal he set for himself. When he first entered art school, he dreamed of becoming a great illustrator in the mold of Howard Pyle. At that time, illustration was still seen as a style worthy of the fine art classification. That changed as the 20th century progressed. An illustrator came to be seen as a hired gun, an artist who executed directives for a buck, instead of expressing his soul.
And those who accepted advertising jobs were bastardizing their talent most of all. Despite the countless artists that accepted advertising commissions — Picasso, Dali, Monet — in the beginning Rockwell vowed “in blood … never to prostitute our art, never to do advertising jobs, never to make more than fifty dollars a week.”
He never tried to maintain this noble standard. But it gnawed at him. And despite the beautiful, touching work Rockwell did throughout his career, he struggled internally to reconcile his career as an illustrator with his fine artist tendencies.
But he never tried to do anything about it. After he moved from Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he began having weekly meetings with the famed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Ironically, Erikson pioneered the concept of “identity crisis.” Erikson told the story of how Rockwell burst into his office one day screaming, “35 years of postcards and calendars; I can’t take it anymore!” Erikson called him on it, telling him that he was financially secure, why didn’t he change?
He never did. This was a defense mechanism. By complaining that he wasn’t recognized as a fine artist without ever seriously trying to be one, he was protecting himself against failure. Throughout his career, Rockwell called himself an illustrator, not an artist.
This unresolved tension never left him. He wanted to compare himself to the greats. Framing the canvas in his painting Triple Self-Portrait are self-portraits by famous artists: Rembrandt (his personal favorite), Van Gogh, Picasso. Once, when he was in Holland, he convinced the curator to allow him into Rembrandt’s studio. Once there, as if talking to an unseen spirit, he asked, “Well? Am I worthy? Am I good enough? What do you think?
His Triple-Self Portrait is worth analyzing further. Rockwell lets us see his painted face — the one on the canvas — but the real-life face in the mirror is flat, expressionless and hidden by reflective glasses. He’s not showing any emotion. Typical Yankee persona.
In reality, his tall and gangly appearance was kind of a caricature of the New England Yankee. He had low self-esteem over his appearance, which by itself is often enough to drive a person to the therapist.
A fear of failure consumed Rockwell. He had seen what happened to his former idol and contemporary, J.C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker had been the most famous illustrator of his era. In the early 1920s his Arrow Collar shirt man received 17,000 pieces of fan mail a week — more than movie star Rudolph Valentino. But Leyendecker lived beyond his means and had to overbook himself because needed the money. His work suffered and the jobs stopped coming. He died in obscurity and insolvent.
Rockwell recounts in his autobiography that this tragedy deeply affected him. He was terrified that it would happen to him. To prevent it, Rockwell became a workaholic. He worked every day of the year, including sneaking out to the studio on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons. He would obsess over his paintings, pointing out to his friends tiny aspects that he felt were mistakes.
This unnecessary self-flagellation is another Protestant virtue. The mindset is: I’m the not the most talented guy in the world, but if I work harder than everybody else, I’ll do alright. Friends recalled his anxiety every month when traveled to the Saturday Evening Post offices to pitch a cover idea. By this time, he had such an enormous following that the thought of rejecting him was ludicrous. He had become a cultural icon. Joey Bishop introduced him on his TV show as “Apple Pie.”
Rockwell was successful from his first cover, made when he was a teenager, until his death in 1978, at 84. He showed a remarkable ability to adapt his style to suit changing cultural tastes. This is opposed to other great illustrators before him who failed to adapt, like Charles Gibson. The Gibson girl was all the rage at the turn of the century, but in the 1920s his pen-and-ink style was out and John Held’s Flapper Girl was in. Gibson’s style didn’t mature and he consequently faded in popularity.
After the Saturday Evening Post declined in stature, Rockwell started working for Look magazine. Look was owned by Time/Life and had a photojournalistic feel. Out were paintings of kids swimming and in were the Peace Corps workers, presidential portraits and NASA paintings.
More importantly, Rockwell moved away from depicting an idealized America and began addressing the issues facing the country. He had always shied away from making social statements, saying, “I will not disturb my audience.” This had been what the Saturday Evening Post wanted, too. Editor Ben Hibbs had a standing rule of no blacks in paintings; they made people feel uneasy.
But when the civil rights issues and racial strife gripped America, he began making social statements. He painted murdered civil rights workers. He did a painting of a little black girl being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals. This was based on the true story of Ruby Bridges, who integrated a New Orleans school in 1960. He did a multicultural montage.
Many people attribute Rockwell’s change to the influence of his third wife, Molly, who was a liberal. But the change had been fermenting inside of Rockwell for years; Molly just helped bring it to the surface.
This work in the latter stage of Rockwell’s career may tie back to incidents that traumatized him as a child. Before he was even old enough to understand what was going on, he was witnessing the worst of humanity. When he was a boy growing up on the far Upper East Side of Manhattan, he watched from his rooftop as German and Irish gangs fought. He once saw a drunken woman beating a man then run screaming out of a vacant lot. Until the 1960s, many of his covers had people running, especially kids. Rockwell may have been trying to resolve through art what he saw. But it wasn’t until his late paintings that he directly depicted racial and social issues.
Despite the deliberate nature of his work as a painter, Rockwell was emotionally impulsive. He proposed to his first wife Irene immediately after receiving his first commission for a Saturday Evening Post cover. She was living in the boarding house where he was staying. It doesn’t appear that they were seriously dating before his proposal; Rockwell was simply euphoric from getting the job.
The marriage didn’t work. Although they had several children, the two traveled separately and both had affairs, according to Rockwell. Almost immediately after their separation, he met Mary Barstow, a California socialite just out of college and 14 years younger. They were engaged within a week. Her substance abuse and mental instability proved an enormous strain on their long marriage. When she died suddenly of a heart attack, he re-married again within several months.
These marriages say that Rockwell was spontaneous and lacked foresight or planning ability. He was overwhelmed by his emotions and acted on them. As a consequence of getting married without first knowing his partner, Rockwell had to deal with an emotionally volatile domestic scenes most of his life.
It wasn’t only taking advertising jobs that may have bothered Rockefeller; it was whom he was taking them from. He was an agent of the machine, inflicting the WASP capitalistic vision on America. It was one thing to paint his harmless, idealized Saturday Evening Post covers; it was quite another to romanticize AT&T, a government-regulated monopoly that gouged the helpless populace for decades. Compounding the situation was Rockwell’s therapy of pouring himself into his work, churning out piece after piece. This internal hypocrisy, compounded by his own sense of inadequacies over his appearance, life’s work and family life, all contributed toward Rockwell’s mental torment. Virtually nobody knew of this condition. And it’s hard to find in his work. But like many 20th century Americans, Rockwell’s work and personality belied the hurricane within him.
And all the trappings of success at the pinnacle of the American Dream — fame, money, immortality — not only didn’t help, but contributed to his grief.