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Art and Images in Psychiatry
April 2007

The Art Critic

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64(4):398-399. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.4.398

I love you and need you always, I know I am extremely difficult at times due to my absorbtion (sic) in my work. . . . If you decide you want to be free, I consent but I earnestly believe we can have our best lives together.

—Norman to Mary Rockwell, undated, 19501(p376)

“I pray thee, then,/Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.”

Abou Ben Adhem, poem read at Norman Rockwell's funeral2(p59)

When interviewed for a magazine profile in 1960, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) emphatically defined himself as a genre painter. To make sure his interviewer got it right, he spelled it out for her, “That's spelled g-e-n-r-e.”1(p432) For more than 60 years, beginning with his first Saturday Evening Post cover, Boy With Baby Carriage, published on May 20, 1916, his anecdotal vignettes chronicled American life and values. In all, Rockwell completed 322 covers for the Post over nearly half a century. He represented America's proud patriotic strength and its democratic principles during 2 World Wars, and when the civil rights movement began, he documented the injustice of bigotry and the consequences of racial hatred. Throughout, as a keen observer of human nature, he depicted with a wry wit and a real sense of humor the hopes and struggles of growing up in America. Early in his career, as a matter of artistic technique, he was advised to invite the viewer into his illustrations. His success in engaging viewers through their active imaginations was widely appreciated. Adored by his viewing public and frequently scorned by avant-garde critics, Rockwell always hoped for more positive critical recognition. Despite his art training and familiarity with modern art (Picasso was one of his favorite artists), overall he did not receive such recognition. A re-evaluation of his work is under way,3 initiated by a traveling exhibition of selected art works from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Cover image: The Art Critic, 1955. Oil on canvas, 39.5 × 36.26 in. ©1955 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Cover image: The Art Critic, 1955. Oil on canvas, 39.5 × 36.26 in. ©1955 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

Rockwell married Irene O’Connor in 1916; the marriage ended in 1930. Irene remarried 5 days after the divorce that she had demanded was finalized. Afterwards, Rockwell rarely spoke of her. Filled with self-doubt when his fame and wealth were not enough to sustain his marriage, he immersed himself in his work, his lifelong pattern when stressed. Later that year, he married Mary Barstow, a 22-year-old school teacher 14 years his junior whom he met on a blind date. She gave birth to their 3 sons (Jarvis, Tom, and Peter) during the first 6 years of their marriage.

With the onset of World War II, Rockwell turned his talents to the war effort. To help America understand what our troops were experiencing, he introduced GI Willie Gillis on Post covers. Gillis, an everyman filled with quiet strength and determination, appeared on 11 covers over the next 5 years, first as an Army recruit and finally as a college student, apparently supported by the GI Bill. Rockwell's most important contribution to the war effort was his Four Freedoms paintings based on freedoms proclaimed in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's State of the Union address on January 6, 1941. Roosevelt hoped for a secure new world based on freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want (economic security), and freedom from fear (a reduction in armaments so that no one nation has the means to commit an act of aggression against another). Freedom from Fear (Figure 1) shows a mother tucking sleeping children safely into bed while the father warmly looks down on them. The father holds a newspaper in his left hand with headlines that describe the Battle of Britain, reporting on the bombing of London (September 7, 1940, and May 16, 1941) by the German Luftwaffe. The Four Freedoms were completed in 6 months, and the Post published them on successive weeks beginning February 20, 1943; each was accompanied by an essay. The poet Stephen Vincent Benét wrote the essay on Freedom from Fear. These paintings became enduring national symbols4 that explained to Americans why they were fighting (N. and T. DeRobertis, oral communication, December 2006). The images were the centerpiece for a traveling war bond drive that raised more than $130 million. His Freedom of Speech was purchased for the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 1. 
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Freedom from Fear, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45.75 × 35.5 in. ©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Freedom from Fear, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45.75 × 35.5 in. ©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

After the war, America gradually returned to a time of normalcy. However, Rockwell was dealing with new fears and anxieties. By 1948, Mary's alcoholism, mood swings, and depression were apparent to him, their family, and their friends. It became clear that she required treatment as she was sneaking off to a neighbor's home for a drink or reaching for a flask when driving her mother-in-law home.1(p353) Rockwell was loyal to his wife but was increasingly concerned about her unreliability in representing him. “No one could be sure if she would have her drinking under control, or if she would talk coherently at all.”1(p380) He put Mary first and was distressed when she raised questions about a divorce (epigraph) while ill. In the summer of 1952, she began treatment at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass, with its director, Dr Robert Knight. In 1953, Mary drove weekly from Vermont to the Austen Riggs Center for treatment. However, after 2 automobile accidents, her driving license was revoked. When the severity of her condition was made clear to him, Rockwell arranged to sell their home in Vermont and move permanently to Stockbridge in December 1953. In August 1952, Rockwell sought therapy for depression himself. His therapist was Erik Erikson, himself a painter in his earlier years. Erikson was concerned that Rockwell might be at risk for suicide. Rockwell asked his son to remove his gun from the studio.

Rockwell used his art to work through his emotions; Erikson noted that, “His happiness is determined by the progress of his work.”1 In the summer of 1954, Rockwell started The Art Critic (cover), published in the Post on April 16, 1955. His son Jarvis, an aspiring art student, was his model for the young art critic, and Mary modeled for the woman whose pendant is being examined with a magnifying glass as the older men holding tall glasses in the adjacent painting glare at him with scorn and disapproval. This painting seems to reflect 2 common attitudes toward Rockwell's work, sentimental approval by the general public for his innocent themes and condescending dismissal by the “art community.” Critic Clement Greenberg referred to these attitudes as avant-garde and kitsch,5 with Rockwell falling in the second category.

Rockwell's methods reveal a greater depth of knowledge about art than generally appreciated. For The Art Critic, although Mary was the model for the woman, Rockwell based the composition on a portrait by Frans Hals, Portrait of a Woman, and a sketch by Peter Paul Rubens of his first wife, Isabella Brant.1 The attitude of the woman can be traced in 20 preparatory photographs and oil paintings. In them, Rockwell teased out Mary's most evocative expressions, photographing each facial characteristic until he found the visual humor he sought. At first, she overreacts to the young man who stares at her; then she is more attentive and disapproving; and finally she appears delighted, even flirtatious. Rockwell privately referred to this painting as a sexual joke; it was one that Jarvis did not appreciate.1(p401) Initially, the adjacent painting was a landscape, but it gradually shifted to become 3 Dutch elders who seem appalled at the young man's impudence. The image of the elders is a parody of Frans Hals's A Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company and Rembrandt's The Syndics of the Clothmakers' Guild (but 3 judges are shown instead of 6).1 While Rockwell worked on The Art Critic, his son Tom was accidentally stabbed in a freak fencing accident.1 Under considerable family stress, Rockwell was admitted for a “month's rest” to St Luke's Hospital.

In June 1955, the Austen Riggs psychiatrist referred Mary to the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn, where she had the first of her treatments with electroconvulsive therapy for depression, remaining there for 6 months. For Rockwell, her illness was reminiscent of that of his first wife, who died in 1934, 4 years after their divorce, an apparent suicide by drowning (in the bathtub), following a 2-year hospitalization at McLean Hospital in Boston. Mary was treated with electroconvulsive therapy again in 1958. Then, on August 25, 1959, “They were enjoying being together . . . ,” Jarvis recalled, but she seemed “sluggish at lunch.” After lunch, Mary took a nap.6 When Rockwell went upstairs to wake her, he found her dead. “Heart failure” was the diagnosis on the death certificate, but the family initially assumed it was suicide. Some suggested that she poisoned herself with pills; however, her daughter-in-law indicated that there was no note and that no medications were missing. Later, Rockwell wrote to friends, “She was so unhappy, try to think of it as a release for her.”1(p427)

Mary was 51 years old when she died. She was buried in the cemetery adjacent to their first home in Stockbridge. Friends wrote encouraging letters to Rockwell: “Mary knew you had given her much to live on in your life together and felt you to be a pillar in her often troubled life.”1(p428) It was support from his friends and his sense of irony that saved him from despair. The April 16, 1960, Post cover (Figure 2) seemed to many to be a tribute to Mary. It is the only one of his covers that shows a stained glass window. Rockwell paints himself hard at work completing an angel.

Figure 2. 
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Stained Glass, 1960. Oil on canvas, 46 × 43 in. ©1960 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American. Stained Glass, 1960. Oil on canvas, 46 × 43 in. ©1960 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved (http://www.curtispublishing.com).

Norman Rockwell remarried on October 25, 1961, and Erikson attended the ceremony. It was a happy marriage, and Rockwell continued to paint until the last 2 years of his life. When Norman Rockwell died in 1978, his funeral service began with his favorite poem, Abou Ben Adhem. The poem (epigraph) reflects Rockwell's life philosophy about love for others. Many would agree that, most of all, this democratic, American g-e-n-r-e artist’s paintings do indeed reflect his love for his fellow-men.

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Murray  SMcCabe  J Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms: Images That Inspire a Nation.  Stockbridge, Mass Berkshire House;1993;
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Rockwell  N My Adventures as an Illustrator.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc;1988;