Rockwell and Modernism: The Case of “The Art Critic”

It is often assumed that Norman Rockwell did not like “modern art.” This is definitely false. He liked it very much. On his studio wall, Rockwell had a print of a work by Picasso: on the bookshelves in his studio he had books on painters such as Roualt, Matisse, Munch, Seurat, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec and other moderns. In fact, he made several attempts to pursue modern art professionally. For example, he spent several months in Paris shortly after his second marriage, studying modern art and producing some pictures. We don’t know what became of these modern works. Two covers he made for the Saturday Evening Post in the modern style were rejected—perhaps the canvases were destroyed in the fire that ravaged his studio somewhat later.

But despite his interest in it, and his occasional attempts to practice it, at heart Rockwell was definitively non-modern. And he was almost always happy with that. For the most part, he simply laughed off the modernist-leaning critics who either completely ignored him, or viciously attacked him. But sometimes, he admitted to wanting approval not just from his legions of fans, but from those who really knew art. He complained that people would often say things like “I don’t know anything about art, but I sure like your paintings.” Fine, thanks, but wouldn’t it be nice if once in awhile someone would say “I do know something about art, and I like your paintings!” So: Rockwell is a non-modernist, who studies and understands modernism, but stands in a slightly uncomfortable relationship to it.

I want to show that a grasp of Rockwell’s relationship to modernism can help make sense of one of Rockwell’s most famous pictures. The image is his 1955 Saturday Evening Post cover, “The Art Critic.”

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Rockwell biographer Laura Claridge begins her (generally excellent) book with the picture, and quotes Rockwell’s son Peter saying “I think the painting is cruel, though my father was not a cruel man.” Cruel? Why cruel?

Well, Rockwell’s wife Mary posed for the lady in the painting. And Rockwell’s son Jarvis—which of course means Norman and Mary Rockwell’s son Jarvis—posed for the man. So here we have a picture of a young man staring at a pendant necklace that rests on the chest of his mother. (Although, of course, we don’t really have that. It’s not a painting of Jarvis looking at Mary. It’s a painting of a young artist, for whom Jarvis modeled, looking at a painting of a woman, for whom Mary modeled. But put the complexities aside.) It is easy to fall into the idea that there’s something uncomfortably Oedipal about the picture, once you know who the models were. And, according to Jarvis, “My father made it very plain that the sexual joke was important to the painting.” So it might seem the Oedipal imagery is fully deliberate: that somehow this is a crudely literal picture of a young artist studying his mother’s cleavage, while she reacts with apparent pleasure to the attention. (This supposed Oedipal element is strongly emphasized by other recent critics, especially Richard Halpern.)

I tend to think that if Rockwell wasn’t a cruel man, it would be very unusual for him to make such an obviously cruel painting. But everyone agrees that Rockwell was not a cruel man. So let’s push beyond the (apparently) obvious and see if there’s a better way to understand this image.

In fact, there is. The sexual joke is that there is no sexual joke. Here is where modernism makes its entry. As I said at the outset, Rockwell knew modernist art well. And Jarvis, by the time this painting was made, was a modernist artist himself. And Rockwell had something of a bumpy relationship with the modernist art world. So while Rockwell supported and generally endorsed his son’s artistic endeavors, it’s also clear that he didn’t always see them as above criticism. Claridge reports, for example, that “Rockwell could slide from speaking of ‘Jerry’s’ terrific modern art one minute to referring to his son’s local installation piece as the ‘string mess up the hill’ the next.”

And for Rockwell, for whom narrative—the story!—was always the center of any picture, the modern clearly was a radical departure. For one principle on which the modernist project is strongly based is the idea that the work of art is and must be seen as a work of art. It’s not a woman, it’s a flat surface with color on it. Relatedly, the painting is flat, and the modernist painter wishes to avoid the illusionism that attempts to create “space” in the picture: the modernist wishes to glory in the flatness of the canvas. (In this piece, I am not especially concerned with fine-grained analysis of the characteristic doctrines of the moderns: I am presenting what is clearly a flat footed account, simply because it appears to be the kind of things that filtered through to non-academics, such as Rockwell or Tom Wolfe.)

This doctrine of flatness was theoretically expressed by Clement Greenberg in his famous essay “Modernist Painting” (and elsewhere) a few years after Rockwell completed “The Art Critic.” But these notions had some much earlier expressions in, for example, Maurice Denis, who wrote in his essay “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism”: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Or as Piet Mondrian later put it, “I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness.” This focus on the flatness of the canvas was to change the act of looking at a painting from an act as if of looking through a frame into a three dimensional space containing familiar objects, into an act of looking at the surface itself with its lines and colors—not “objects,” not stories.

So by this standard, it would be an error for an artist to look at the illusionary space in the picture frame. The artist should not be looking at the painting as a “picture of a lady,” but rather as an arrangement of line and color on a flat surface. And Jarvis, the young modernist, would know this perfectly well. Insofar as we think of the young man in Rockwell’s picture as a modernist artist, we should charitably assume that he eschews hypocrisy, and looks as he preaches: he’s not looking at a necklace; he’s certainly not looking at cleavage. Cleavage would be an illusory representation brought about through the denial of flatness! That is, in order to have cleavage, there need to be protrusions from the surface. But on the painting, there are no such protrusions. Only the illusion of them.

Considered in this light, Rockwell’s picture can’t be seen (at least from the side of Jarvis) as having any lurking Oedipal overtones. The whole point is that Jarvis is not looking at his mother’s cleavage. Or, perhaps better, that he is looking at a painting of his mother, but in such a way that he can’t see her in it. He’s so detached from the fact that it’s his mother—or a woman at all—that he quite unaffectedly inspects her cleavage without any sense of impropriety at all. This is an unusual, and indeed unnatural situation. But it’s not an Oedipal situation. It’s a modernist situation.

art-critic-the-saturday-evening-post-cover-by-norman-rockwell-1955But there is much more to see in this picture. I’ve said that the woman’s “cleavage” is not cleavage, since cleavage requires protrusions. And the woman’s breasts do not protrude. But in fact, there is a protrusion in this painting. Jarvis’s palate has a very large dollop of white paint that stands out from the flat surface of the canvas a good half inch at least. This cannot be seen, of course, in reproductions of the work, but in person, it is strikingly obvious. It’s not a little impasto that stands out a bit more than the surrounding paint. It’s a large pile of paint: the white paint on the palette is piled on as a huge protruding mass. In short: the paint itself isn’t flat.

I suspect this is a very clever joke on Rockwell’s part. He’s thinking: these modernists are always going on about the flatness of the canvas, but the paint itself isn’t flat. And he makes the point by heaping up paint absurdly high on the canvas—precisely where it is a painting of paint. If that’s so, he anticipated Morris Louis, who, on Tom Wolfe’s telling, was so impressed by the need for flatness, and the problem posed by the depth of the paint on the canvas, that he took to watering his paint down so much that it soaked into the canvas instead of standing on top of it. Ha! Perfect flatness! Rockwell takes the thought in the opposite direction. Instead of following the flatness doctrine to its logical, and insane, conclusion, he simply mocks the flatness doctrine and continues on with his beautiful narrative painting.

So we have an unfortunate result here. Because critics have failed to dig deeply enough into the picture, the persistent and disturbing notion that the painting involves some kind of incestuous element runs rampant. In fact, that notion dates back to Jarvis himself, who said “I was disgusted by the painting, because I was looking at a bosom, which my mother had posed for, and my father knew that I knew.” Jarvis didn’t give his father enough credit. To reiterate: the joke here is that if the modernist artist is true to his doctrine, he’ll deny the illusory part of the image, and care only about the colors and lines on the flat surface. The joke is that he’s really not seeing the lady’s cleavage: he’s not seeing a lady at all.

It would not surprise me to learn that as he planned out this picture, Rockwell had been giving some thought to the famous picture often referred to, by us non-modernist philistines, as “Whistler’s Mother,” but actually named by Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.” While we look at the picture and see the artist’s mother, the artist himself saw only the colors on the flat surface. (Or so his title tries to suggest, at any rate.) Rockwell, I suspect, was trying to nudge Jarvis out of such pretentions. At least, that strikes me as the most plausible take on this element of the picture. And it’s a comical, fatherly nudge, not a meanspirited or ugly nudge. Remember that Rockwell on the whole was fully supportive of Jarvis’s modernist art. This is just a loving tweak, not a bitter sexually charged smirk.

Mary’s Role in the Painting
But so far we’ve only covered half of it. We’ve talked about Jarvis’s side of things, but not Mary’s. So, as to the lady’s reaction: Rockwell had a devil of a time figuring out what it should be. He sketched many wildly different reactions on the face of the lady. It’s not clear why he settled on the kind of leer he went with, rather than with a frown, or a shocked look. But here’s what I think. I think the leering lady and the looking lad, in a sense, belong to two different stories. (In this, I agree with Halpern, though of course his take on what the stories are is dramatically different from mine.)

First, there’s the private story—the commentary on modern art; the little joke on Jarvis—that is served by having Jarvis look at a picture of his mother without seeing it. This was the heart of the picture—it’s the part that never changed in substance during the whole long development of the details. But, second, there’s the public story, the story that will be taken in by Post readers who don’t know this is Rockwell’s wife and son. They need to be able to “get” the picture. And the leer helps to create a second joke—the joke that people tend to get. Again, this is the joke for people on the outside: people who don’t look at the image and see Mary and Jarvis, mother and son. They see a man looking at cleavage, and a lady leering back in pleased response. I really think that when he finally settled on painting Mary with a leer, Rockwell just abstracted from the fact that the models were his wife and son, and made the picture into a great Post cover. I don’t think this was cruel at all, though I think it was definitely somewhat self-absorbed: I don’t think it occurred to him that the two distinct stories might blend together for some viewers, including his son!

There is a third element in “The Art Critic”—namely, the second picture. On the right side of Rockwell’s canvas, we see a representation of a Dutch group portrait. The men react to the scene in front of them with disdain. This was another part of the picture that Rockwell struggled with—though not as much as he struggled with the lady’s expression. At times, he had a landscape painting in place of the Dutch portrait. But the Dutch portrait is a wonderful part of both stories. First, in the public story, it just adds a fun element, of boring old guys taking offense to the little odd story being played out before them. But, second, in the private story—the story where modernist art is being upbraided, you see the reaction of the denizens of the illusory world of art reacting against their unjust exclusion from the realm of what matters. In ignoring even his own mother, Jarvis is signaling his indifference to all of the human element in painting. The old masters—and their creations—rightly rebel.

Seeing Rockwell’s “The Art Critic” as a clever joke on modernism allows us to avoid seeing it as a crude and cruel invocation of incest. That’s reason in itself to prefer my take. But leaving aside such personal considerations, there’s the additional fact that my take gets us inside the mind of the artist, and allows us to see layers of artistic meaning and insight that the crude and cruel Oedipal reading simply shuts down entirely. I don’t say that the interpretation that takes the artwork to be more rich is always to be preferred to the interpretation that takes it to be less rich. But other things equal, it certainly should.


  • Patrick Toner

    Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas … and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

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