Headlines at Hopkins: news releases from across
university Headlines
News by Topic: news releases organized by
subject News by Topic
News by School: news releases organized by the 
university's 9 schools & divisions News by School
Events Open to the Public (campus-wide) Events Open
to the Public
Blue Jay Sports: Hopkins Athletic Center Blue Jay Sports
Search News Site Search the Site

Contacting the News Staff: directory of
press officers Contacting
News Staff
Receive News Via Email (listservs) Receive News
Via Email
RSS News Feeds RSS News Feeds
Resources for Journalists Resources for Journalists

Virtually Live@Hopkins: audio and video news Virtually
Hopkins in the News: news clips about Hopkins Hopkins in
the News

Faculty Experts: searchable resource organized by 
topic Faculty Experts
Faculty and Administrator Photos Faculty and
Faculty with Homepages Faculty with Homepages

JHUNIVERSE Homepage JHUniverse Homepage
Headlines at Hopkins
News Release

Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
901 South Bond Street, Suite 540
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Phone: 443-287-9960 | Fax: 443-287-9920

December 18, 2006
CONTACT: Amy Lunday

Norman Rockwell's Santa Paintings:
Naughty or Nice?

Santa Claus is the ultimate arbiter of who's been naughty or nice. Given that he controls the world's supply of toys, few would dare to question whether St. Nick himself lands 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.
Richard Halpern
Richard Halpern
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

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, said Halpern, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in the English Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences 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 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," Halpern wrote, "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 [Rockwell] trying to express with his Santa paintings 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," Halpern said. "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, Halpern said. In "Santa' 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 for Rockwell to keep himself interested in the repetitive nature of his work. He 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 two previous 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 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."

Note to editors: High resolution digital photographs of Halpern are available by contacting Amy Lunday at acl@jhu.edu or 443-287- 9960.

Johns Hopkins University news releases can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/
   Information on automatic e-mail delivery of science and medical news releases is available at the same address.

arrow Go to Headlines@HopkinsHome Page