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Norman Rockwell’s Family Doesn’t Want You to Think He Was Gay

by Alicia Eler on December 3, 2013

Ever wonder what happens when you Google "Norman Rockwell gay." (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Ever wonder what happens when you Google “Norman Rockwell gay.” (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

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.”

Norman Rockwell's portrait of US President Richard Nixon (1968) at the National Portrait Gallery's Presidents' gallery typifies the pristine image of Rockwell's America. (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Norman Rockwell’s portrait of US President Richard Nixon (1968) at the National Portrait Gallery’s Presidents’ gallery typifies the pristine image of Rockwell’s America. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

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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  • lt@pixelsPainting.com

    I think that we’re all bisexual by nature but not nurture.
    (nothing to do with art)

  • Ryan Chorbagian

    One of those thumbnails up there is not a Rockwell but a J. C. Leyendecker illustration.

    • http://www.motorcitymuckraker.com/ only living girl in detroit

      The one with the dudes kissing, perhaps? That seems a little risque for Mr. Rockwell.

    • Monsoonking

      Yes, two of them are Leyendecker (who actually was gay) and two of the sailor works are doctored (the original is on the bottom right).

      I actually prefer Leyendecker to Rockwell:
      http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-perfect-american-male/

      • socalsek .

        The two sailors kissing is a photograph by Pierre et Gilles.

  • Monsoonking

    Unless you’re omitting other evidence presented in the book, are we to believe that Rockwell was quite possibly gay because he said his assistant looking fetching in flannel?

    He’s possibly a pedophile because he painted kids? Because, you know, one moment you think a guy looks good in flannel, the next you’re sexually lusting after children.

    I guess it’s a nice way to drum up some publicity.

  • JDJDJDJDJD

    Idiot book. Idiot reporting about book.

  • IQTech52

    “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?”

    Mirror? It seems Mr. Rockwell was painting an idyllic portrait of what America wished it were. His works reflect a small portion of the America of is time, not the whole.

  • Gest2016

    “Norman Rockwell” has become synonymous with a whitewashed, idealized version of America where everyone is happy in their prescribed roles as men, women and citizens. This is not a world of subtlety or complexity. I find it supremely ironic and fitting that Norman Rockwell wasn’t abe to paint a “perfect” picture of his own life. Perhaps the reality of his life was more complex and challenging than the almost nauseatingly idealized pictures he painted.

  • Richard

    I’m a gay male and strangely enough said the same thing to my lover regarding his art about 1 year ago. I’m not a art type guy so just my opinion. I’ve seen some gay art over the years usually in gay book stores that is quite similar to his style and thinking back about 10-15 years ago there was this one artist who I now wonder if wasn’t purposely using Norman’s style but being definitely gay with the models. Sorry wish I could remember his name so you could have a look at his stuff for a little comparison. Anyway gay or str8…don’t matter but my guess has always been that Rockwell was at a minimum bi-sexual. And to IT@pixels I agree with you wholeheartedly…all humans are bi-sexual….some unfortunately bury it so deep they never can understand it. All gay or str8 means is predominantly one way or the other. That’s why there’s so much confusion I believe over the issue of whether we were born this way and to some we are choosing to be gay. No I believe we all start out bi and most gravitate one way or the other in order to have some clarity in their life. It really pisses me off with all the talk of gay this, gay that and the “supposedly str8″ haters out there that are tired of hearing about the gay issue but none of the str8′s that are screaming even mention the word bi-sexual. The reality is that there is a very large percentage of people out there who experience both sexes but it so far in circles is mainly not talked about. Many, many, more bi’s than predominantly gays…lets open up a real conversation one day or are all you married “str8″ couples who sneak out on each other to fulfill a little same-sex fun now and then to scared to tell your spouse your attracted to more than meets the eye. To those of you who are honest with each other I salute you and your courage to live for who you are. To those couples who remain faithful to each other and are ok with that I salute you to. For those that are lying to themselves and there spouses I despise your inability to be an honest human. To make a loving partner live your lies believing you are something that you are not is despicable.

  • Rabdak

    Wage on, wage on…the more you fight against a label, the more you become the label. Personally, I think it is ‘more’ American to admit you are gay.

  • socalsek .

    I read an article in which Norman Rockwell said his best painting was the statement on racism ‘The Problem We All Live With’. He felt a freedom he did not feel with his other paintings meant for mainstream consumption. Suggesting his paintings have any indication as to his sexual preferences is a sign of our current obsession with sexualizing everything. The fact that he could not develop a relationship with a woman does not mean he was gay – it means he could not develop a relationship with a woman. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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