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American Mirror

Deborah Solomon's biography portrays Norman Rockwell as an unhappy loner, sadly distant from the idealized scenes of his art.

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American Mirror,
by Deborah Solomon,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
512 pages

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By Barbara Spindel for The Barnes & Noble Review

Deborah Solomon tells a revealing anecdote midway through American Mirror, her new biography of Norman Rockwell. One of the painter's three sons was home sick in bed and asked his father to draw him some clowns. Rockwell, by then renowned for his all-American Saturday Evening Post covers as well as for his patriotic World War II-era posters of the Four Freedoms and Rosie the Riveter, demurred, insisting he was unable to draw without a model or photograph to use for reference. This sad little episode captures both the paralysis Rockwell often experienced around painting and the difficulty he had connecting with his family. Both of these themes run through Solomon's sharply perceptive book, which shows Rockwell to be a lonely, anxious man whose life bore little resemblance to the idealized scenes depicted in his work.
 
Art critic Solomon has written biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, but she's perhaps better known for her occasionally biting "Questions For" column, which ran in The New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2011. Her easy command of 20th-century American art and her prickly intelligence combine well here: "American Mirror" is an engaging and enjoyable read, and Solomon manages to be both authoritative and breezily conspiratorial in tone ("the twenties sometimes seem too silly for words," she declares at one point).

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