Sneer if you want at the “Rembrandt of Punkin’ Crick,” but Norman Rockwell knew his art history. His paintings are a virtual candy store of references to the Old (and New) Masters. Even when he made fun of the art world—say, in Art Critic, where a young copyist in a museum is ogled by a woman in a portrait—his humor was always playful, like the genial ribbing among club members, one artist to another.
Art history not only provided an occasional foil for Rockwell’s comic riffs, it also gave him a deep well of images. Forced by relentless deadlines to be prolific, Rockwell often borrowed ideas from other artists. (No shame in that. All artists filch, crib, plagiarize. If they’re good at it they leave few fingerprints.)
One of the most intriguing instances of artistic “appropriation” by Rockwell relates to a painting that appeared on the cover of the March 6, 1954, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Girl at Mirror depicts a young girl, maybe 10 or 12 years old, playing alone in the attic. Dressed in a lacy slip (or nightgown?), perhaps a cast-off of her mother’s, she sits on a stool and considers her reflection in a mirror. Now note the props. Resting in the girl’s lap is a magazine, open to a glamour photo of the reigning Hollywood sex kitten, Jane Russell. A doll is tossed aside. At the girl’s feet are a brush, comb, and coral lipstick, uncapped. And we see that the girl has glossed her lips and pinned up her braids in an effort to look like … Jane Russell. Can it be? Can it be that Norman Rockwell—our Norman Rockwell!—has discovered sex?
The Rockwell exhibition catalogue is annoyingly brief in its discussion of this painting. The author only speculates that the artist may have been inspired by Picasso’s famous Girl at Mirror at the Museum of Modern Art or by Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun’s portrait of her young daughter, Julie LeBrun with a Mirror (1787). With all due respect, you’ve got to be kidding! There is a much more obvious, though less polite, source for this painting.
Anyone familiar with the graphic arts of the early 20th century? Anyone who enjoys browsing through boxes of matted etchings, drypoints and lithographs (I’m raising my hand) would recognize the uncanny resemblance of Rockwell’s painting to a once-notorious etching by the English artist Gerald Brockhurst (1890−1978). Now little known outside of print collecting circles, Brockhurst enjoyed a considerable reputation in the 1920s and ’30s as a superb printmaker, specializing in portraits of young women. His women—often girls—inhabit an antique world, half Florentine, half Dutch. Of all Brockhurst’s etchings, the acknowledged masterpiece is Adolescence, dated 1932.
As in the Rockwell painting, the girl sits with her back to us so that our eyes rove past her to her reflection. The big difference is that Brockhurst’s girl—actually his soon-to-be wife—is explicitly naked. She contemplates the unwanted maturity of her body with fierce, frightened eyes. It is a moment of terrifying awareness. Her private turmoil is made shockingly public, and it is this voyeuristic aspect of the image that is most disturbing. We clearly shouldn’t be there, peeping over her shoulder. We should close our eyes, close the door. But we can’t.
Rockwell would have known Brockhurst’s print. It was widely exhibited and reproduced in the American art press. He would have appreciated the print’s clever contrivance: after all, perceptual games were among Rockwell’s favorite ploys. He certainly understood the potency of the image, the silent drama, all the more intense for being surreptitiously observed. Of course, it would have been unthinkable to be so frank on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. (In Eisenhower’s America movie couples still slept in twin beds and Elvis’s pelvis was too risqué for Ed Sullivan.) And in any case, Rockwell wasn’t interested in shock. He was content to slyly insinuate. His little miss is still a child, still blessed, still dressed. Neither girl nor young woman, she’s a “tween,” staring at her “adulterated” image with a blend of longing and self-conscious anxiety—not yet the fearful awakening of Brockhurst’s adolescent. That will come soon enough.