Norman Rockwell Biography Angers Family; Author Stands Firm

Dec 19, 2013

Norman Rockwell's "Christmas Homecoming" on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

Members of the Norman Rockwell family are angered over a biography of the painter published earlier this year.

In October, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts hosted the launch of Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell . Since then, the book has garnered both positive and negative reviews. Many reviewers have noted Solomon’s discussion of Rockwell’s possible latent homosexuality and pedophilic impulses in his life and homoerotic symbolism in his work. Rockwell’s son Thomas Rockwell and granddaughter Abigail Rockwell spoke Thursday on WAMC’s Roundtable program to express their anger. Thomas Rockwell says the museum has made a mistake in endorsing the book.

“Our attitude is that they made a mistake and they’re continuing the mistake by continuing to applaud the  book on their website and appear on radio with Deborah,” Rockwell said. “This is very concerning, but I think this is something that we will just have to work out in the future because we do love the museum for what it’s done for my father.”

After the Roundtable interview, the Norman Rockwell Museum released a statement to WAMC News saying it is “a center for scholarship and academic freedom about Norman Rockwell and American Illustration studies open to all. Our archival and digital collections are used extensively by students, researchers, authors, art historians, curators, collectors, models, family members and many more. The Solomon biography is one of a long line of books about Norman Rockwell, and we anticipate that the art and life of this important American artist will continue to be of great interest and importance."

In her praise for American Mirror, which appears on the back jacket of the book, museum director Laurie Norton Moffat calls it a masterpiece that is “vivid, forthright, and insightful.” She goes on to say: “Through superb research and keen interpretation, Deborah Solomon tells the story of an artist so many thought they knew well, and perhaps did not know at all. An epic achievement.”

Solomon says Moffat read the book and voluntarily offered to write the passage.

“Do you think she would endorse a book that in any way diminished Rockwell? No,” said Solomon.

Earlier in December, eight of the 10 family members of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency joined in releasing a statement saying – "Ms. Solomon's conclusions demand scrutiny. The Family now feels that her purpose in befriending us and writing this fictionalized account was publicity, financial gain and self-aggrandizement.”

“I think the suggestion of pedophilia blows the credibility of the book out of the water,” said Abigail Rockwell.

Solomon says she’s had a cordial relationship with Thomas and Abigail Rockwell, but believes they have misinterpreted her book.

“All I say is that he painted men more than women,” Solomon pointed out. “That he liked to paint the male figure. He was interested in the male figure. I do use the word ‘homoerotic’ to describe a homoerotic impulse, which means interest in the male body. That’s what he painted. So I wasn’t making claims about his behavior. I was looking at his work. I don’t know why they think the comments I made about his work somehow compromised him.”

Thomas Rockwell does praise Solomon for considering his father’s work more than just illustration, but questions her ability to interpret it. Abigail Rockwell says Solomon doesn’t have a shred of evidence to back up the claims of pedophilia or homoeroticism and that she feels betrayed by Solomon.

“These phantom theories about his sexuality, the pedophilia and homoerotic urges color and distort everything, even her interpretations of the art, so you can’t separate it out,” said Abigail.

Solomon says she also feels betrayed and saddened that members of the Rockwell family have negative feelings about her work. She refuted claims by the family agency that she wrote the book for financial gain, saying there’s no money in being an art critic. The museum, meanwhile, continues prominently featuring the book in its gift shop and online store. Thomas Rockwell says the two family members who did not sign the statement simply didn’t want to be involved, but he questions the museum’s motives in appearing to support the book.

“The endorsement sounds as if they believe it,” Thomas Rockwell said. “But, I just can’t believe if they really look through the book and consider it closely that they would agree with it.”