Louis Agassiz was the most renowned scientist of the 19th Century. One of his favorite maxims was the best way to learn was from observation. He was so well respected and famous that students from all over the world made pilgrimages to study under him. One student recalled that Agassiz put him in a room alone with a smelly dead cod and said simply, "Look at the fish." After several hours Agassiz came back in and asked the student to tell him about the fish.
"Well, it has scales, and some fins..." stammered the student, but Agassiz cut him off.
"You are telling me what you think you know about it. Look at the fish!" Agassiz exclaimed, then left the student alone with the fish for several more hours. When the great scientist returned, the student was able to go into far greater detail about the fish once he had laid aside his pre-conceived ideas about what he thought he would see.
What on Earth does that story have to do with the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover from World War One? A lot.
If you are going to read only one book about Norman Rockwell, do yourself a favor and do not make it American Mirror by Deborah Solomon. Her
The author is an art critic who has spent the vast majority of her life telling us what to think in regards to the unintelligible drips and splatters that comprise late 20th Century art. And it's a good gig; Who's gonna say you're wrong if you write some mumbo-jumbo about some smeared paint on canvas? But the more one does that, the more one can fall into the intellectual vacuum of inserting one's own emotions instead of the artists. It's a Rorshach Test approach to critiquing.
( "I see butterflies kissing!" "I see an angry Mommy coming to beat her child over spilt milk...")
The problem starts when you try the same mumbo-jumbo on paintings that are meant to be painfully obvious. So, in Ms Solomon's interpretation, almost every painting Rockwell did holds some clue as to his repressed homosexuality, because that's what she intended to see in them to begin with.
Let's be honest; That an artist could be gay should come as no shock. (Paging Mr. Michelangelo...) And to imply that one is gay should be met with the Seinfeld Defense: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" But it's the author's claiming that Rockwell was attracted to little boys because of his gay leanings speaks more about her mindset about homosexuality than anything Rockwell painted. To her, if one is Gay, then one is naturally a pedophile. Don't they go hand-in-hand? Her "proof" behind her brilliant theory?
He painted little boys a lot. And he did it really well...
I mentioned in an earlier post about how Rockwell was beholden to his clients, advertisers and magazines editors for their input. It was they who dictated what Rockwell painted. Even when he was given free reign as to his depiction of a subject, the idea almost always came from them first, and he still had parameters within which he had to work. Remember, Rockwell was an Illustrator, not a Fine Art Artist.
Needless to say, Rockwell's family-- who cooperated with her for this book-- are very unhappy. Fellow Rockwell fans and scholars are calling Bullshit on her bat-shit crazy idea. Personally, I'm not going to go deeply into refuting charge after ridiculous charge. I'll give you two paths to follow if you are so inclined. One is this excellent article, and this one is a follow up.
I'm going to talk about the fish.
Look at this painting again:
In Solomon's world here's proof of Rockwell's homoerotic tendencies. What do we have here? Two Navy guys-- and really, aren't all Navy guys gay? I mean it goes without saying. What are they doing? Obviously fondling each other. One is evidently going to be the "Pitcher" and the other one will definitely be the "catcher". You can tell this by the loving caress the gay sailor on the right (the one with the pretty bow) is giving the gay bloke on the left. Good Lord, how obvious does Rockwell have to make it?
No. Look at the fish!
The sailor on the right got a letter from his girl back home. See the envelope and picture he's holding? You can tell she's a girlfriend (or wife) -but not just a friend- from the lipstick kiss next to her picture. The sailor is so lost in his reverie about how much he misses her, and all the fun they had, that he forgets where he's at and who he's with as he gently touches his friend's knee-- as if he were his lady love. His friend is a big, tough, lantern-jawed old salt whose twice the size of his little friend. His machismo is evident in his tattoos and his pipe smoking. He looks down at his friend whose hand is on his knee with a "Dude, you better get your hand off my knee quick!" attitude.
That's the joke! And that's all it is.
Maybe Rockwell didn't quite have the chops this early in his career to pull off the perfect facial expressions to drive his point home. But he did give the picture enough clues to let us know what is going on. All we have to do is look.
Deborah Solomon could have stood a lesson from Louis Agassiz.