Former New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon’s new biography of Norman Rockwell, American Mirror, hints that America’s “most beloved artist” may have been a closeted gay man. Rockwell, who died in 1978 and was perhaps best known for his The Saturday Evening Post magazine illustrations, reflected back to America what it looked like. Solomon, who has written biographies of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock, raises questions that could bring forth new interpretations of Rockwell’s work and life. But is an artist or writer’s sexuality important at all in relation their work if they are, in fact, acting as an American mirror?
In her 493-page book, Solomon notes that Rockwell “demonstrated an intense need for emotional and physical closeness with men.” She also ponders whether his marriages were part of a way for him to “control his homoerotic desires,” and notes how, while on a camping trip with his male assistant placed a vague comment about how the assistant appeared “most fetching in his long flannels.” The Times quotes a passage in Solomon’s book that questions about Rockwell’s sexuality:
Later in the book, Ms. Solomon writes that “we are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses.” She again added a disclaimer: “There is no evidence that he acted on his impulses or behaved in a way that was inappropriate for its time.”
The Kinsey Scale, which was released in 1948, expanded the very binary and clinical definitions of heterosexual and homosexual, suggesting instead that sexuality exists on a spectrum of 0-6, allowing much room for fluidity. Rockwell was illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post at this time, and his models came from his life. In response to accusations that Solomon is calling Rockwell a “homosexual,” she responds as such:
“I’m a biographer, I am not a psychiatrist. I would never presume to say that someone is gay.”
Here Solomon, a self-described art critic and art historian, makes the odd comment that seems to suggest that being “gay” could only be diagnosed by a psychiatrist when she tells the Times, “I’m a biographer, I am not a psychiatrist. I would never presume to say that someone is gay.” It is worth noting that the APA listed homosexuality in the DSM in 1952 as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” and did not remove this until 1974. Rockwell died only four years later.
Whether or not the artist was gay is a valid question; but sometimes, visual evidence is more revealing as a mirror reflection than any type of label or speculative question. Says Solomon:
” … I do feel entitled as an art critic and an art historian to analyze works of art. And I do think a case can be made that some of Rockwell’s paintings display homoerotic tendencies. He specialized in affectionate portrayals of the male figure and lamented many times that he could never paint a sexy woman. And nowhere in the book do I say that he is gay.”
The Rockwell family asserts that Norman Rockwell was not gay, and they are now waging a battle to “protect” his image from becoming one of a “closeted homosexual,” which will in fact just draw more attention to the issue and push it further into the media spotlight.
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