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American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
by Deborah Solomon
493 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published: November 2013

American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon is a fascinating review of the life of an acclaimed American illustrator. Solomon is an art critic, journalist and the author of biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell. She is currently working on a biography of artist Jasper Johns.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is best known for his iconic illustrations which graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963. But in addition to these 300+ covers, Rockwell painted or sketched about 4,000 other works of art for use in books, magazines and calendars.

In many ways, Solomon’s “American Mirror” is nearly everything a reader could want in a great biography. It is comprehensive, appropriately detailed, wonderfully descriptive and consistently inquisitive – while maintaining a nearly perfect balance in focus between Rockwell’s personal and professional lives. It also includes nearly 100 illustrations which are incorporated into the narrative in a way that is both insightful and accessible to the general reader.

Solomon’s exploration of Rockwell’s life is enormously captivating, a notable achievement since he seemed to have led a purposefully mundane life largely devoid of the glamour and glitz one might expect for an artist notable even in his own time.  Given the choice of attending a high-profile social gathering in his honor or hiding out in his studio, Rockwell would invariably chose the latter.

But if his social skills were lacking, his professional skills were not and much of the narrative’s allure is derived from the author’s astute analysis and interpretation of Rockwell’s countless illustrations. And in this respect, Solomon’s background as both an art critic and extraordinarily fluent writer proves invaluable.

For all its merit, however, “American Mirror” is not without controversy. Shortly after the book’s publication, Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail launched a spirited campaign rebutting some of the assertions made by Solomon in her biography. Many, but not all, of the highlighted issues relate to Solomon’s suggestion the famous artist exhibited signs of homosexuality and, possibly, pedophilic impulses.

Although the relevant portions of her narrative are replete with disclaimers, Solomon has received significant criticism for the ultimately unprovable insinuations. Not content to fire just a single salvo and retreat, however, Abigail Rockwell has continued to press her case with additional commentary.

Readers unaware of the controversy will nevertheless notice Solomon’s tendency to speculate on matters large and small. But she does note these items as points of conjecture rather than fact. Less importantly, while Solomon does an excellent job balancing Rockwell’s artistic career and personal life (which included three marriages…each interesting in its own way), his three children receive significantly less attention than they deserve.

Controversy aside, Deborah Solomon’s biography of Norman Rockwell is robust, colorful, thought-provoking and surprisingly captivating. Although Rockwell attempted to lead an insular life within the safe confines of his studios, his interpersonal relationships, peripatetic impulses and enthralling art conspired to make his world one that is well worth exploring. With less speculation regarding Rockwell’s inner-self, “American Mirror” would be almost perfect.

Overall rating: 4½ stars