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Neither Simple Nor Innocent

Was Norman Rockwell the great painter of American innocence? Look again, says Richard Halpern.

By Maria Blackburn
Illustration by Bill Cigliano

At first, Norman Rockwell and Richard Halpern don't seem like such a great match.

Rockwell you know: painter of puppies, apple-cheeked Boy Scouts, twinkle-eyed Santa Clauses, and the old swimmin' hole; illustrator of 322 Saturday Evening Post covers; creator of images that adorn uncounted calendars, cookie tins, and refrigerator magnets; celebrator of an idyllic, nostalgic American past. Halpern you probably haven't met: Yale-educated Johns Hopkins professor of English, Shakespeare scholar, author of several books of literary criticism, and museum-goer who appreciates contemporary art. Just the sort of person one would imagine to dismiss Rockwell as a kitschy sentimentalist, a popular illustrator, not an artist.

But Halpern does not dismiss Rockwell at all. After spending years engaged in a close reading of the painter's work and life, he has arrived at some startling conclusions. Rockwell, says Halpern, painted a lot more than nostalgia-tinged innocence. Ignore the received wisdom about the painter and take a good long look at Rockwell's work. Yes, you'll see innocence, but you'll also see darkness, sexual perversity, voyeurism, desire, and sophisticated musing on masculinity and femininity, what Halpern calls "weirdness in the midst of the ordinary and commonplace." That son discovering Santa/Dad smooching his mother on the stairway in Christmas Surprise? He's a voyeur unexpectedly learning the facts of life. The illustration of two entwined Boy Scouts practicing knot-tying in the 1946 Boy Scout calendar? A comment on the boundaries between asexual friendship and Eros. The half-naked little boys bolting from the pond in No Swimming? Rockwell's take on The Swimming Hole, a subversively sexual painting by 19th-century American painter Thomas Eakins that depicts a group of handsome, naked young men standing on and diving off a rock.

Halpern has turned his iconoclastic take on Rockwell into a book, Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and as you might imagine, it has attracted more than a little vitriol. He has been called an elitist, a pervert, and a "whacked-out professor of higher education."

"The book's purpose wasn't to point out potentially naughty bits in a Rockwell," Halpern says. "And I wasn't just trying to say there's a sexual content to Rockwell's painting because that would make it sound like a clichéd Freudian reading of the art. What I want to say is that Rockwell is thinking about innocence and he's using this to test the viewer to see how much of this kind of material you can absorb without acknowledging it. This was also his way of meditating on how innocence is constructed by disavowing things that are right in front of your face.

"I don't have anything against Norman Rockwell. I love Norman Rockwell's work. In writing this book I was trying to enhance people's appreciation of him, and in fact I was making stronger claims for his status as an important artist, a status that has eluded him up to this point."

And for the record, "I don't have anything against Mom and apple pie, either."


Exhibit A: Girl at Mirror (1954)

A girl on the verge of puberty sits in front of a mirror in an attic, her back to the viewer. She's wearing an old-fashioned white nightgown and holds a magazine in her lap, flipped open to a photograph of 1950s sexpot Jane Russell. The girl is studying her own face in the reflection. On the floor by her bare feet are a vintage doll, an open tube of lipstick, a comb, and a brush.

Red — the color of sexual passion — is everywhere in the painting. Halpern points out a red stool, a red hairbrush, red lipstick, all the artist's way of suggesting the girl's budding sexuality. And the image of Jane Russell, all sultry and sexy, looks up at the girl from the magazine with an appraising stare. But for a real insight into what Halpern calls "the underside of innocence" in Rockwell's work, take a look at the doll. "I think the posture of the doll is a little strange," Halpern says. "Its skirts are hiked up and it seems to have the mirror's edge pressed between its legs."

A viewer might say that the doll's derrière-in-the-air pose looks surprisingly sexual. Another might counter that the doll was simply tossed aside by the girl, or in that position when Rockwell painted the image. Halpern says one only has to look at key evidence from other Rockwell paintings — paintings in which a number of dolls seem to be in provocative positions — to see that this doll's placement is no accident. "This is a case where you read an image against another image and your take becomes a little more compelling," he says.

This isn't just about a doll's weird pose. Halpern says the doll serves to suggest the girl's pending loss of innocence. He also believes that Rockwell uses the doll in the painting as a reference to classical paintings of the goddess Venus and her mirror. "With artists like Velasquez and Titian, there's a Cupid figure that's holding up the mirror to Venus so she can view her image. I think that doll invokes that tradition. Obviously the little girl is not the goddess Venus. But Jane Russell, the Hollywood star, is sort of our culture's counterpart to what a goddess would be."

Halpern specializes in Renaissance literature, with an interest in literary theory. In graduate school at Yale, he studied, with Harold Bloom and others, the influences of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud on literature. "Yale was a hotbed of critical theory in the '70s and '80s — it was the place where French critical theory was finding an American audience for the first time," Halpern says. This had a major impact on his scholarly pursuits.

Although literary theory isn't at the forefront of all that he does, Halpern says his work tends toward the theoretical. In a previous book, Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud and Lacan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), Halpern applied psychoanalysis to the tradition of aesthetic thought. In the book, he argues that sodomy becomes entangled with aesthetic issues, and that it bears an especially close relation to an aesthetics of the sublime. "I wanted to bring together two things that didn't seem like they belonged together," he explains.

This bringing together of two seemingly disparate subjects occurs again when Halpern looks at Rockwell and sees his darker side. The idea for studying America's most well-known artist first came to Halpern about 20 years ago when he ducked into the small Norman Rockwell museum housed in the Curtis Publishing Company building in Philadelphia, the former home of the Saturday Evening Post. He hadn't paid much attention to Rockwell before, and the images surprised him. "In the midst of all this banal innocence I saw strange things going on," he says. He remembers looking at Rockwell's 1957 Saturday Evening Post cover Just Married, in which two hotel maids stand outside a couple's honeymoon suite. "What struck me as odd was they were holding a dustpan of confetti and they were looking at it with smiles on their faces," he says. Clearly, he thought, the confetti was a substitute for some kind of wedding night waste. "The perverse pleasure they had seemed so blatant to me, I was just surprised to see that."

Halpern didn't think much more about Rockwell until about 10 years ago, when he was at the Whitney Museum's Biennial show in New York and came upon some paintings by Eric Fischl. Fischl is an American contemporary painter known for his disturbing scenes of suburban family life. Something about Fischl's paintings reminded Halpern of Rockwell. "There was a Fischl painting of a mother and son nude and sitting in chaise lounges around a hotel pool at night," he says. "It was a very peculiar image because on the one hand it was suffused with this weird sense of suburban calm, and on the other hand this mother and son were unclothed. It was this juxtaposition of disturbing sexual elements and almost oppressive normalcy that reminded me of an inversion of Norman Rockwell." Rockwell has a sort of bland utopian surface, but there's something hidden in that, Halpern says. "Rockwell's work is about the secret sexuality of the banal, and Fischl's portraits are about the secret banality of the sexual."

"In the midst of all this banal innocence I saw strange things going on," Halpern says of his trip to a Rockwell museum. Through his research, Halpern learned that Fischl and Rockwell weren't dissimilar. Both were figurative painters who worked in a narrative mode. Both liked to make jokes on canvas. And Fischl had an interest in Freudian themes. Did Rockwell share this interest? Halpern — who saw Rockwell and Fischl as kindred spirits — suspected he did. Soon after making the connection between the two artists, he decided to write the book. "Looking at Fischl helped me to understand Rockwell," he says.

Though he collects art and goes to museums, Halpern is not an art historian. To write about an artist without formal training in art history was intimidating, but freeing in a way, he says. "I have an amateur's interest in art, and for writing about Rockwell that seemed appealing to me," he says. "The ways I experience art are not unrelated to some of the ways Rockwell experienced art. The art world always raises the question of whether you are an insider or an outsider. I feel like I'm both. I received a good general education, so I'm an insider. I'm interested in contemporary art but I don't follow it as closely as some people I know, so I'm an outsider."

This tension of identity is something Rockwell himself struggled with throughout his career. "The question of whether he was an insider or an outsider tortured Rockwell," Halpern says. "Was he part of the art world or was he a joke?"

Halpern wanted to write about Rockwell, but not in a traditional academic way. "It would be silly to write about someone who was such a popular artist in a way only academics could understand," Halpern says. "I didn't want this to be a work of scholarship. I was interested in talking about Rockwell in a different way."


Exhibit B: Art Critic (1955)

In a museum, a young male art student, clutching painting supplies and an exhibition catalog, holds a magnifying glass up to a portrait of a Rubenesque lady. He is aiming it so close to the brooch on her ample chest that three men look askance at him from a Dutch painting on the adjoining wall. Meanwhile, the lady in the painting leers appreciatively at the student.

The Freudian dimensions of this painting swim into view, Halpern says, when we are let in on Rockwell's private joke: Jarvis, Rockwell's son, is the model for the art student and Mary, Rockwell's second of three wives, is the model for the lady. So the painting plays with the idea of an Oedipal relationship between mother and son. "This is not simply a witty image of incest," Halpern writes. "It is an image whose wit itself is incestuous. Like incest itself, then, the joke turns inward — away from the shared open realm of public meanings and exchanges, and into a secret, shameful space."

The Oedipal connection in the painting isn't just for people who know the identities of the models. Halpern says that in the picture, Rockwell alludes to Oedipus and the Sphinx, by J. D. Ingres. The student in Rockwell's painting has a stooping posture similar to that of Oedipus in the 19th-century work, and the generous décolletage of the lady in the Rockwell echoes the bare breasts of the Sphinx in the Ingres. "I think anybody who looks at the way those two paintings are constructed will see there's a case of allusion there," he says. "To add an allusion to a painting like Oedipus and to do it in a painting where there is a kind of Oedipal joke going on indicates that Rockwell is thinking about this fairly carefully and he's working it out in a complicated way. Rockwell was well-educated in the traditions of art history. He often alludes to other paintings in his work. And although he had a fairly rapid rate of output, he was a smart, sophisticated kind of painter. It's all carefully worked out."

Norman Rockwell may be famous for his idyllic images of small-town life, but his own life was hardly idyllic, Halpern discovered through such volumes as Norman Rockwell: A Life, by Laura Claridge (Random House, 2001) and the artist's autobiography Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator (Curtis Publishing, 1979).

Rockwell and Mary suffered from clinical depression. He was anxious about money, insecure about his looks and masculinity, fearful that he would run out of cover-worthy illustrations for the Post, and worried about his place (or lack of one) in the art world. He was no innocent. Innocence is "an ingrained habit of denying what one knows and doesn't want to know," Halpern asserts. And Rockwell, in My Adventures as an Illustrator, admitted he was under no illusions about the nature of his art. "Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be and painted only aspects of it — pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard. If there was any sadness in this created world of mine it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren't mentally ill or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of daily life."

Yet, amid these ideal images, Rockwell inserted references to other painters, jokey asides, and other things that were of interest to him. As Halpern studied Rockwell's paintings, he saw certain themes arise again and again. Rockwell was fascinated with mirrors and used them as a way to obscure and highlight what was really in his illustrations. He was fascinated with the idea of peeping, spying, and otherwise looking in and being looked in upon. He liked to show people's rear ends — a part of the body that appeared in his paintings as undignified and vulnerable, humorous but still sexualized. "There's indisputable evidence that for Rockwell, sometimes sexual jokes are planned in, that they are part of the paintings," he says. "But also I think that if you just look at enough of his paintings carefully enough and fully enough you'll just see the same sort of things popping up repeatedly."

Rockwell was an ordinary man, with sexual thoughts and desires, with knowledge that sexual perversities exist in the world. Often the humor in a Rockwell arises from the anxiety of the situation he had chosen to depict. A doctor's office where a kid has to drop his pants to get a shot. A funhouse where the wind tunnel blows up a little girl's skirt and a boy sees her underwear. A man looking at a piece of modern art he's not sure he understands. "The jokiness is part of the point, but often jokes are about things that make people nervous or anxious, too," Halpern says. "I think he was a very nervous person and I think the things that made Rockwell nervous make other people nervous, things like physical appearance and sexuality and the meanings of masculinity and femininity and understanding modern art. His work speaks to that."

Although Rockwell enjoyed financial success and popularity, he chafed under the restrictions the Saturday Evening Post editors placed on his art (frequent deadlines, no painting cigarettes in the hands of women or showing people drinking alcohol), and he envied the freedom of noncommercial painters. And while many Americans considered him their favorite painter, art critics and insiders dismissed him as a commercial illustrator, not an artist. It wasn't long before his work became the embodiment of middlebrow kitsch. Even with a growing recognition among some art critics of Rockwell's excellence as an artist, that split in opinion still remains.

Halpern emphasizes that his reading of Rockwell is not a purely subjective affair. He is not making this stuff up. This book is his interpretation of Rockwell's work, and it includes observations that no one has made before, but it is based on detailed readings of Rockwell's illustrations, on supporting evidence found in Rockwell's body of work, in the work of artists Rockwell referenced, and on Halpern's knowledge of Rockwell's life. "I don't want people to dismiss the book as one person's reading of what's there," he says.


Exhibit C: The Connoisseur (1962)

A well-dressed man stands in an art gallery, his back to the viewer. He is studying a large paint-splattered canvas that looks like it's by Jackson Pollock. His face as he appraises the painting is hidden from view. The painting is filled with color. The man and his surroundings are gray and colorless.

This is a study in contrasts — between the composure of Rockwell's realistic style, and the angry energy of the Pollock-like painting's Abstract Expressionism. There is the contrast between the chaos of the painting and the composure of the man viewing it, and between the masculine Pollock and the effeminate connoisseur, Halpern says. Rockwell is also commenting on his own relationship to his critics and to modern art. Clement Greenberg, the great champion of Abstract Expressionism and of Pollock, marked Rockwell in a famous essay as the embodiment of kitsch. "Not only was Rockwell's work not receiving recognition in the art world, but it was also being greeted with universal contempt by the art world in the '50s and '60s, and I think a lot of those resentments bubbled over in this painting," Halpern says. The man appreciating the painting is too effete, too fastidious, and almost feminine. "I think he's being mocked," Halpern says. "Even if he is enjoying the painting, he is clearly someone who does not represent the typical readers of the Saturday Evening Post."

Rockwell's attempts to be au courant are dated since, by 1962, Abstract Expressionism had been eclipsed by Pop Art as the latest fad. What about the painting the connoisseur is viewing? "On one level Rockwell is trying to literally and figuratively contain Pollock," he says. "He has reproduced what more or less looks like a Pollock, albeit a pretty atrocious version of one. He's saying, 'I can do you, but you can't do me.'"

Rockwell fans who learn of Halpern's book have been less than generous in their assessment of his reading of Rockwell. An October 2006 story about the book in The Boston Globe headlined "Portrait of the Artist as a Dirty Old Man" drew more than 50 responses on an online message board. "What kind of pervert looks at a perfectly innocent painting of a young girl and sees a sexual image? I think someone should keep an eye on this guy," one reader wrote. "I think Richard Halpern is the 'dirty old man,'" someone else said. Another commented, "Rockwell's paintings were timely and very well done, and his subjects were of the highest standard. Another example of how our 'great liberal schools' are screwing up the thoughts of the world." And then there was this one: "Who do we need, the Rockwells or the intellectuals?"

Halpern says he was surprised by the nature of the criticism. He never accused Rockwell of being a pervert or a pedophile or a dirty old man. Yet people who read the news story assumed he had. Rockwell was an ordinary man, one with sexual thoughts and desires, one with knowledge that sexual perversities exist in the world. He was just like anybody else, Halpern says. "I want to say that that stuff is floating about generally — that it floats in and out of everybody's mind," he says, "and that Rockwell was aware of it."

What stung the most, he says, was the allegation that he was trying to destroy ordinary people's appreciation of a beloved artist. "I'm not trying to tear Rockwell down," he says. "That charge bothered me because it underlined a misunderstanding that what academics do is attack things and tear them down. It's like people think of the professor as a bogeyman."

When Halpern told people he was working on a book about Norman Rockwell, they usually responded in one of two ways. "Most of the people I knew found him so boring and banal that they didn't give any thought to him," he says. "Other people revered him for embodying a certain image of American life." In a sense those two groups share the same understanding of Rockwell, but value him differently. "One group thinks he's banal and that he's falsified the world he depicts. The people who revere him know it's not the whole of the world, that it's not all true, but it's still something they want to hold on to."

That split is in part what makes Halpern's book a difficult sell, says Claridge, author of Norman Rockwell: A Life. Many academics don't see the complexities of Rockwell's work, and many of his die-hard fans are unwilling to hear anything they construe as negative about their champion of innocence. Claridge says she found Halpern's book to be intelligent and provocative. "Often there's a temptation when you do Freudian-influenced analysis to go to extremes, but Halpern does not," she says. "He doesn't make Rockwell's art a psychoanalytic playfield. Once you read the analysis and you look at the picture you say, 'Yes, right. That is going on.'"

She continues, "The majority of his examples held up beautifully — that's why the typical Rockwell fan would not want to go there. Part of America only wants to believe Rockwell was only being innocent, but that's not all there is. Whenever we think we're innocent, it is extremely unlikely we are."

As an academic, Halpern says he's become used to his books being well received but not popular. The Underside of Innocence is different. In addition to The Boston Globe, mainstream magazines including The Atlantic Monthly and The London Spectator have written about the book. The sales ranking for the book on has climbed unusually high for a scholarly book — something that didn't happen with Halpern's previous books, all scholarly, all about Shakespeare or poetry.

"This book has definitely generated more interest than Shakespeare," says Halpern, who is currently researching a book about political action in modern life as it relates to the history of theater. "It's the most popular book I've written, although that's not saying much."

He is laughing. "Among the lot of bad-selling books I've done, this is the most successful failure."

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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