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
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
"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
"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 www.curtispublishing.com/images/Rockwell/
For Santa's Surprise, go to