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Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self-Portrait

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What follows are some observations about Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, Triple Self-Portrait. Much could be said about Rockwell, the descendant of early (c. 1635) New England settlers, and the topic of race. He portrayed American whites—and reflected their idealized image of themselves in their twilight decades—as few other artists have before or since. His work, a brute force of nature, presses itself upon the viewer, demanding a response positive or negative. It is too intrusive, emotionally and visually, to be easily ignored.

On one level the most politically correct of painters (for example, his WWII and late civil rights and globalist-themed paintings), Rockwell was at the same time deeply subversive in technique, subject matter, and flaunting of artistic conventions. His implicit whiteness, for both good and evil, was pronounced.

A Jewish academic writing in a “scholarly” journal claims that Norman Rockwell was George Lincoln Rockwell’s uncle. While it is true that both men were New Englanders, artistic, worked as illustrators, and shared the same surname, I think this must be the sort of slovenly factual error characteristic of Holocaust and genocide studies. The practical effect of such a relationship would have been to publicly discredit Norman Rockwell, which many people desired to do despite the fact that by the 1960s he was churning out highly useful Socialist Realist-style racial propaganda. The author appears to be relying upon Frederick J. Simonelli’s biography of GLR, American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (1999), for his authority. If anyone has the book and can check whether or not it really says this, and on what authority, it would be appreciated.

At any rate, such matters are outside the scope of this essay, which is not explicitly racialist.

Illustrator and Artist

Rockwell’s paintings fall broadly into two categories. One I characterize as caricature or cartoonish, and it includes the numerical bulk of his work. He was employed throughout his life as a magazine illustrator and commercial artist. These pieces are deservedly less famous than the later realist or quasi-realist paintings that most people associate with him.

The realist work, which is quite interesting—and aesthetically subversive, leading to critical dismissal of Rockwell during his lifetime—anticipated the Photorealists of the 1960s–70s and after, such as Richard Estes. Rockwell first made extensive use of the camera in 1935, initially plagued by the notion that he was “cheating,” and feeling ashamed at tracing details from projected images. Yet photography liberated him, radically transformed his art, and gave rise to his best work.

Despite the realism, Rockwell was never a photorealist. One reason was thematic: he was communicating a message or point of view. A second was that he almost always introduced an element of caricature or cartoonishness into even his best works. Whatever the reason for this, it seriously marred his art.

Portraits and Self-Portraits

From earliest times the portrait has been considered a means to immortality. Many cultures have attributed magical powers to it. There are two conflicting tendencies in portrait art: the desire to represent subjects accurately, and the desire to transform or idealize them.

In classical Greek sculpture, a primary objective was the idealization of the human form. Roman portrait sculpture borrowed from the Greek in style and technique, but forsook the ideal in favor of particularizing the individual.

During the Renaissance pictorial signatures abounded in which artists worked themselves into crowd scenes or elsewhere in their compositions. In cinema, a well-known example is director Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his movies.

Norman Rockwell did the same thing in at least two paintings, Norman Rockwell Visits a Ration Board (1944) and Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor (1946), below (Rockwell, smoking a pipe, is entering on the right).

Two other works with similar titles suggesting his presence, Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School (1946) and Norman Rockwell Visits his Country Doctor (1947), do not in fact contain representations of the artist.

On Rockwell’s easel in Triple Self-Portrait are pinned photos of self-portraits by (from top to bottom), Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Many commentators have remarked upon the presence of Picasso, so unlike Rockwell in genre and technique.

German painter Albrecht Dürer was among the first to reveal a psychological self-awareness in his self-portraits. Other artists, such as English portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, asserted their social and material success in their images of themselves.

Artists have often portrayed themselves with the identifying attributes of their profession, such as palette, brush, and easel, as Rockwell does in Triple Self-Portrait. For the artist, the self-portrait is an opportunity to present a flattering or penetrating revelation of his character. He is compelled to view himself as a mirror-image (literally, in Rockwell’s case), but through the distorting lens of his own perception.

Composition in Triple Self-Portrait

The central geometrical shape in the painting is the large square or rectangular canvas upon which Rockwell is working. A Roman helmet tops the easel, and a fierce eagle and American shield the gilt-framed mirror he’s peering into. The artist’s signature is on the uncompleted canvas rather than in the lower right-hand corner of the main painting, as would typically be the case.

Due to the size and centrality of the internal canvas, the eye is naturally drawn to Rockwell’s half-completed facial image. It is a realistic, if slightly idealized, portrait of the artist.

And yet, the eye is perhaps most strongly drawn to the artist on his stool and his image in the mirror. The face on the canvas is black-and-white and incompletely fleshed out, whereas the other images are complete and in vivid color. The artist’s leaning to the left creates a sinister diagonal that draws the viewer’s eyes in that direction, offset by a reciprocal running to the upper right corner of the internal canvas. The reciprocal is formed by the slope of the artist’s shoulders, the right arm holding the brush, and the linear hand -guide or -rest.

The most striking feature of the “real” Rockwell is the blank eyes in the mirror created by the lenses of his glasses. Ultimately, the viewer is denied access to the window of the artist’s soul.

I mentioned that cartoonishness or caricature characterizes a great deal of Rockwell’s work. A good example of such a piece is a self-portrait from two decades earlier, “Self-Portrait: The Artist Was Facing a Dilemma,” 1938. It is hardly realistic.

In Triple Self-Portrait we glimpse the faintest touch of the persistence of this tendency in the perhaps slightly exaggerated buttocks, pigeon toes, sloped shoulders, and scrawny neck in the mirror. Rockwell was at his best when he suppressed this weakness entirely, which was rarely. Still, in his best work, like this one, it is heavily muted. In a handful of works it is absent completely.

There are small details in the picture that engage the viewer’s attention, like the precariously balanced beverage and the items protruding from Rockwell’s rear pocket. Burnt matches litter the floor and a small plume of smoke rises from the trash bucket filled with flammable material. This could be a subtle allusion to the loss of his Arlington, Vermont studio to fire in 1943. In addition to spent matches, Rockwell frequently emptied his pipe into the trash can, igniting small fires on more than one occasion.

Moving still farther away from the picture, Triple Self-Portrait itself is the frame or window through which we perceive the artist—the window Rockwell himself created, the composition he designed, looked at, worked upon.

Triple Self-Portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for February 13, 1960, and was the 308th of 322 cover illustrations Rockwell painted for the magazine between 1916 and 1963. Triple Self-Portrait also introduced the first chapter of his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator (1960), and was featured on cards he sent to people who wrote to him.

The overall spirit of the painting resembles Hitchcock’s movie cameos—at once detached, puckish, enigmatic, whimsical. No doubt the popularity of Triple Self-Portrait is also partially due to a vaguely M. C. Escher quality it possesses—in a realist rather than surrealist context.

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One Comment

  1. Alexander
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Seems to be great essay, shall read with attention ASAP…..Interestingly, Norman Rockwell was pretty popular in the USSR, and we, the Soviet schoolchildren, studied his art and bio during our English classes [beginning of 1980s].
    Thanx, counter-currents!

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