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Fri November 1, 2013

Behind Rockwell's Idyllic America, There Were A Lot Of Therapy Bills

Originally published on Fri November 1, 2013 5:49 pm

In February 1959, the great illustrator and magazine artist Norman Rockwell was on Edward R. Murrow's celebrity interview show, Person to Person. For decades, Rockwell had painted scenes that told stories of wholesome, G-rated life in small-town America, and Murrow interviewed Rockwell at his home in just such a small town: Stockbridge, Mass.

Rockwell told Murrow how much he and his family loved living in Stockbridge, but what he didn't say was that Stockbridge was their home because it was also home to the psychiatric institute where his wife, Mary, who was depressive and alcoholic, had found treatment; nor did he say that he had entered therapy several years earlier at the same institute, with a psychoanalyst who went on to great renown.

"Stockbridge is known as a quintessential New England town," biographer Deborah Solomon tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "And in the '50s, it really was a center of psychoanalysis. And Rockwell moved there not for the peaceful countryside, but to be treated."

Solomon's new book, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, takes a close look at Rockwell's relationship with his psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. Erikson was a German Jewish refugee who went on to write Childhood and Society and Young Man Luther. He gave us the concept of the identity crisis and of life as a multistage process of social development.

A Therapeutic Influence

Rockwell found Erikson late in adulthood, after he'd already experienced a lifetime of depression, anxiety and severe insecurity.

"Erikson was a fabulous listener, and their time together wasn't really psychoanalysis so much as counseling and support," she says. "Erikson was a great supporter of Rockwell, and Rockwell needed that."

Erikson also helped Rockwell connect with liberal politics, and that showed in his art, specifically his 1960s civil rights paintings.

"When he painted the Golden Rule, for instance, in 1959, he tried for what we now call multiculturalism, meaning bringing people from all different ethnicities and religions together," Solomon says. "The central figure is a rabbi who I see as a stand-in for Erik Erikson, who was the closest thing that Rockwell ever had to a spiritual leader."

But Rockwell's relationship with Erikson didn't come cheap. Some of his paintings — like his famous Kellogg's Corn Flakes magazine ads — were meant as bill payers to cover the enormous psychiatric tab he and his family had racked up in Stockbridge.

The Difference Between His Art And His Reality

Rockwell thought of his mother as a chronic hypochondriac, and his father as a drudge. His brother, meanwhile, was athletic and popular, nothing like his skinny, outsider kid brother, Norman.

"I think Rockwell experienced himself as sort of the classic younger brother, picked upon and bullied," Solomon says. "And art for him, of course, became a way to bulk himself up from what he saw as the very competitive world of male adolescence."

Rockwell's own childhood doesn't appear in his work. He painted an idealized America where a boy's anxiety might be the vaccination he's about to receive, and the runaway is a young, comical kid who doesn't even make it out of town before he's stopped by a friendly cop.

"I think he painted a view of America as a caring, concerned place," Solomon says. "He certainly was not painting his own reality, but he was painting, I think, his longing."

Always An Outsider

In the heyday of abstract art, Rockwell was a gifted, commercially successful draftsman and representational artist, which meant he was often dismissed as a lightweight, or "culture polluter," as Solomon puts it. If that hurt him, he didn't let it show.

"He loved illustration for its own sake, and it was very painful for him not to be acknowledged as a gifted artist. But he was committed to illustration," Solomon says. "Now, of course, we understand that realist painting can be as emotional as an abstract painting. But during his lifetime, many people suffered from the illusion that abstract painting was somehow more emotional just because it included drips and splashes and wide strokes."

In fact, Rockwell did once experiment with abstract art. His 1962 painting The Connoisseur shows a balding, middle-aged man from the back as he looks at a Jackson Pollock. To make The Connoisseur, Rockwell had to do his own version of a Pollock painting — and, according to abstract artist Willem de Kooning, it wasn't half bad.

Solomon says, "[De Kooning] saw Rockwell's Connoisseur, and he said to the owner of the gallery, 'That painting is better than anything Jackson could do.' ... But I'm not sure if he intended the comment as a compliment to Rockwell or a takedown of Pollock, his rival."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. In February 1959, the great illustrator and magazine artist Norman Rockwell was on Edward R. Murrow's celebrity interview show, "Person to Person." In fact, he was the opener, the warm-up to Murrow's interview with the recently victorious Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

For decades, Rockwell had painted scenes that told stories of wholesome, G-rated life in small-town America. Murrow and "Person to Person's" camera found the Rockwell family at their home in just such a small town, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PERSON TO PERSON")

EDWARD R. MURROW: Norman, from my quick tour of Main Street, Stockbridge appears to be a most pleasant town and I know that personally from driving through it.

NORMAN ROCKWELL: Yes, we like it very much here. We've been here, I think, about six or seven years and we really love it.

SIEGEL: What Norman Rockwell did not say was that Stockbridge was their home because it was also home to the psychiatric institute where his wife, Mary, who was depressive and alcoholic, had found treatment; nor did he say that at the same institute he had entered therapy several years earlier with a psychoanalyst who went on to great renown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIK ERIKSON: Wisdom is not just a matter of knowing something and having learned something, but having learned to be sensitive, having learned to sense something.

SIEGEL: Erik Erikson gave us the concept of the identity crisis, of life as a multi-staged process of social development. He was a German Jewish refugee who went on to write "Childhood and Society" and "Young Man Luther." The relationship between famous patient and renowned psychologist figures in Deborah Solomon's new biography "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell." And Deborah Solomon, I should say it first, that there's a lot more to your book than Rockwell's therapy with Erikson. But I just find it unusually striking and worth dwelling on for a few minutes. OK?

DEBORAH SOLOMON: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: First of all, why did Norman Rockwell go into therapy?

SOLOMON: Well, I think he was thrilled to find Erikson after a lifetime of depression and anxiety and very severe insecurity. Erikson was a fabulous listener, and their time together wasn't really psychoanalysis so much as counseling and support. Erikson was a great supporter of Rockwell, and Rockwell needed that.

SIEGEL: Now he had been introduced to the psychiatric center in Stockbridge because his wife had been treated there. And you write at one point that those wonderful Kellogg's Corn Flake advertisements, which he painted with kids bursting with joy 'cause they had their corn flakes in front of them, these were bill-payers. These were ways in which Norman Rockwell made enough money to pay his wife's psychiatric bills.

SOLOMON: And his own. He ran up enormous psychiatric bills in the '50s for himself, his wife and his three sons, all of whom were treated at Austen Riggs at various points.

SIEGEL: Austen Riggs being the psychiatric institute that was a very liberal, open psychoanalytic place.

SOLOMON: Right. An open wards place. But what's interesting is that Stockbridge is known as a quintessential New England town, with tranquil pastures and gazing cows. And in the '50s, it really was a center of psychoanalysis and Rockwell moved there, not for the peaceful countryside, but to be treated.

SIEGEL: Yeah, he could've told Murrow. I guess it would've been odd in '59, and say, I'm here for the shrink.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: But it wouldn't have been a normal "Person to Person." Norman Rockwell painted an idealized America where a young boy's anxiety might be the vaccination he's about to receive from the doctor whose back is turned. Or the runaway kid is a young, sort of comical runaway who doesn't get out of town and sits down with the friendly local policeman.

He didn't paint his own childhood. His own childhood was a lot worse than that, wasn't it?

SOLOMON: Yes. I think he painted a view of America as a caring, concerned place. No. He certainly was not painting his own reality, but he was painting, I think, his longing.

SIEGEL: The family that he grew up in, he regarded his mother, he regarded her as a chronic hypochondriac, I gather. His older brother was the robust, athletic, popular kid, as opposed to skinny Norman. And his father is described as a drudge who, you know, is surviving, taking the train to and from work every day.

SOLOMON: Yeah. I think Rockwell experienced himself as sort of the classic younger brother picked upon and bullied, and art for him, of course, became a way to bulk himself up from what he saw as the very competitive world of male adolescence.

SIEGEL: He entered therapy with Erik Erikson pretty late in adulthood. I think he's about 60, right, when...

SOLOMON: That's correct.

SIEGEL: How important would you say Erikson's opinions were to him and his judgments were to Rockwell?

SOLOMON: I think Erikson played a large role in Rockwell's work and helped push him towards the civil rights paintings that Rockwell did in the 1960s. Through Erikson, Rockwell was able to connect with liberal politics and his subject matter showed it. When he painted the "Golden Rule," for instance, in 1959, he tried for what we now call multiculturalism, meaning bringing people from all different ethnicities and religions together.

SIEGEL: This is actually the large piece that - there's a mosaic of it at the United Nations.

SOLOMON: Exactly. There's a mosaic copy of it at the U.N., "The Golden Rule." The central figure is a rabbi who I see as a stand-in for Erik Erikson, who was the closest thing that Rockwell ever had to a spiritual leader.

SIEGEL: Rockwell was, first of all, a very gifted draftsman, and I gather in terms of the craft of painting, he was very successful commercially and he was a representational artist in the heyday of abstract art, all of which subjected him to criticism now and again that he was an artistic lightweight, that he was an unserious painter.

SOLOMON: Right. He was seen as a toxic culture polluter, a nonentity, of course, to art historians.

SIEGEL: But I come away from reading your book, though, that other people were very concerned about this. Either he was very tightly wrapped and didn't admit - or only admitted it to Erikson in therapy or else he - it rolled off him somehow. It didn't bother him.

SOLOMON: I think that he wanted to work in the tradition of illustration. He loved illustration for its own sake, and it was very painful for him not to be acknowledged as a gifted artist. But he was committed to illustration. Now, of course, we understand that realist painting can be as emotional as an abstract painting. But during his lifetime, many people suffered from the illusion that abstract painting was somehow more emotional just because it included drips and splashes and wide strokes.

SIEGEL: It's interesting when you speak of the contrast between what Rockwell was doing and what Jackson Pollock was doing. Rockwell has a painting called "The Connoisseur," in which we see a balding, middle-aged man from the back looking at a Jackson Pollock. And to make that painting, Norman Rockwell had to do his own version of a Jackson Pollock, and it's not bad.

SOLOMON: No, it's very good. He had to fastidiously recreate a Jackson Pollack.

SIEGEL: Was it Willem de Kooning who looked at this painting and said, boy, that's really - he really has Pollock down there?

SOLOMON: No, he looked - he saw the painting in a gallery, he saw Rockwell's "Connoisseur," and he said to the owner of the gallery: That painting is better than anything Jackson could do.

SIEGEL: That was Willem de Kooning said that.

SOLOMON: Willem de Kooning said that. But I'm not sure if he intended the comment as a compliment to Rockwell or a takedown of Pollock.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Of Jackson Pollock, I see.

SOLOMON: His rival.

SIEGEL: Well, Deborah Solomon, thank you very much.

SOLOMON: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Deborah Solomon's book is "American Mirror: The Life And Art of Norman Rockwell." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.