American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

Magazine cover art is not the ubiquitous phenomenon it once was. "Illustrators," as Norman Rockwell would have put it, are largely left only with the ironic platform of the New Yorker, and Rockwell didn't do "irony" unless it was a gentle, playful irony. While many other mid-century American artists dazzled critics with nothing more than their "abstract expressions," Rockwell and his huge audience saw more in boys (and sometimes girls) being boys, whether at war, at the ball field, at prayer or at the dentist's office.

Deborah Solomon's American Mirror is neither nostalgia nor revolutionary revisionism. Solomon is a pro whose biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell remain definitive studies, and she takes a fresh look at a man who transcended his complicated and troubling inner life to achieve a commercial success that allowed him to live, if not a "Norman Rockwell life," at least a full and reasonably satisfying one. When Breaking Home Ties (his 1954 Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a rural workingman father sending his scrubbed-up son off to college) sold at Sotheby's for $15 million in 2006, Rockwell at last joined the highest ranks of his contemporaries--although he probably would have preferred to be named to the Baseball Hall of Fame (which he was, in a way: two of his baseball-themed Post covers now hang prominently in Cooperstown). Through his art, Rockwell did as much as anyone to create an "American mirror" reflecting an ideal to which both recent immigrants and native-born citizens could aspire. Would that we might have such an ideal again. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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