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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 18, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 15
Ho, Ho, Oh!

Richard Halpern, a professor in the English Department, is the author of 'Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence.'
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Norman Rockwell's Santa paintings are more than meets the eye

By Amy Lunday

Santa Claus is the ultimate arbiter of who's been naughty or nice. Given the fact that he controls the world's supply of toys, few would dare to question whether St. Nick himself would land in the "nice" column. But Richard Halpern contends there was one bold soul who risked placing kids' experiences with the jolly old elf on the dark side of the ledger: Norman Rockwell.

As is the case with many of Rockwell's iconic portraits of American life, there's more to his Santa paintings than meets the eye, according to Halpern, a professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Krieger School's English Department and author of Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence (University of Chicago Press; October 2006).

Keen observers will see more than just an amusing slice-of-life snapshot when taking in paintings like Santa's Surprise and The Discovery, both of which depict the shocked facial expressions of little boys in the moment they've figured out that Santa isn't real. Halpern contends that pictures such as these point to Rockwell's career-long study of innocence lost, as well as the power of American denial and our willingness to overlook the unpleasant things we don't want to see.

"I think he asked himself, What is this thing called innocence that people want me to produce again and again?" Halpern said of the prolific commercial painter. "What we see depicted in his paintings if we look closely is something that is apparently innocent that really isn't innocent at all."

In The Underside of Innocence, Halpern writes that Rockwell's Santa paintings illustrate something other than a happy holiday scene. Describing the "saucer-eyed" look on a young boy's face when he finds a Santa suit and white, wiry fake beard in his father's dresser drawer in the painting The Discovery, Halpern suggests that the boy has found more than he bargained for. When "recognition strikes like lightning" across the boy's face, Halpern says what we're really seeing is "a flash of youthful disillusionment" — a favorite theme in the Rockwell canon.

"This discovery does more than shatter belief in an imaginary, gift-bearing, grandfatherly figure," Halpern wrote. "It also reveals to the child that his parents have lied to him — that they have constructed an elaborate performance for his benefit, one that provides a pleasurable infantile dream while it works but whose exposure opens a yawning gulf of other secrets they might also be concealing. In part, the ruse of Santa Claus stands in for that larger — and never quite successful — pantomime of sexless domesticity that young parents act out for their children."

"What we see him trying to express with his Santa paintings," Halpern said, "is that moment when children realize that Santa is a phony, but beyond that, in that moment, they are seeing more than they want to see. It's complicated to process, that moment when they are understanding for the first time that their parents can lie to them. They are starting to entertain doubts. The moment he discovers that Santa isn't real is proof that his parents have been lying to him, posing the question, What else are they lying about?"

The curiosity of children is the antithesis of adult denial, and we see that in the paintings where the children take it upon themselves to investigate and uncover the truth behind Santa Claus.

In Santa's Secret, a boy — seen only in reflection in a mirror — reacts to the discovery of his mother with her sewing kit fitting his pipe-smoking father for his Santa costume.

"Rockwell was very interested in peeping," Halpern said. "It's the same peeping we hear about in Christmas songs like 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' and that old Buck Owens song called 'Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy.' Like Rockwell's paintings, they use the image of Santa Claus to depict children secretly observing what they mistakenly believe to be adultery."

Adding social commentary to his paintings was a way to keep himself interested in the repetitive nature of his work — Rockwell was always commissioned to do what he was renowned for, and he got bored with that, Halpern said. In an effort to inform his own work, Rockwell traveled to Europe to study other artists who were part of the emerging abstract movement. While Rockwell never lacked for work, he might have wished for more inspiring job offers.

"He tried occasionally to do darker images, but they were usually rejected by his editors at The Saturday Evening Post," Halpern said.

Halpern is not an art historian — his specialty lies with Shakespeare, the subject of his numerous articles and previous two books, Shakespeare Among the Moderns and Shakespeare's Perfume. But like Rockwell, he enjoyed his foray into a different medium.

"[Not being an art historian] both limited me and freed me at the same time," Halpern said. "I was able to look at something with a fresh eye. it was a vacation from what I usually do."

Halpern said he hopes that his fresh look at Rockwell isn't upsetting to the artist's family or the staff of the Norman Rockwell Museum, who were a great help to him in preparing the book. He doesn't want The Underside of Innocence to be interpreted as a "portrait of the artist as a dirty old man," as The Boston Globe proclaimed in the headline accompanying its book review, which emphasized some of Halpern's frank interpretations of Rockwell's art.

"I hope that they liked [the book] in the end," Halpern said. "I'm not trying to castigate Rockwell. Nothing could be further from the truth."

For a look at The Discovery, go to 9561229.jpg.

For Santa's Surprise, go to


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