The Riggs Blog

The Intersection of Austen Riggs, Rockwell, Stockbridge, American Psychoanalysis, Art and Family Strife.

By Jane Tillman, Ph.D., ABPP

In Deborah Solomon’s recently published biography American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, she gives a thorough account of the years Rockwell and his family lived in Stockbridge, MA.  Through Solomon, the reader learns that Rockwell and his second wife Mary, moved to Stockbridge in 1953 so that Mary could continue her psychiatric treatment with then-medical-director Robert Knight, MD at the Austen Riggs Center. Eventually Norman Rockwell entered into outpatient psychotherapy with Erik Erikson, a relationship described in some detail and of great interest to me, as the new Director of the Erikson Institute.

Solomon’s biography of Rockwell includes a fascinating account of the complex difficulties Rockwell had as a husband, a father, and at times in his work. Rockwell’s idealistic depiction of American life was at odds with the recurring moments of despair and suicidal ideas he experienced in his private life.  This paradox sheds light on the fact many people manage to have a public persona that masks a troubled inner life of sadness and conflict. The reader is given a glimpse into the small town life of Stockbridge and the work Norman Rockwell undertook with Erikson in order to address his own depression, creative blocks, and interpersonal strains. As Solomon writes, “Rockwell took an instant liking to “Mr. Erikson,” as everyone called him” (pg 288).  The fact that Erikson had been a painter in young adulthood may have also given the two men an affinity and respect for one another. 

Arriving in Stockbridge from Berkeley, CA in 1951, Erikson began to add to his foundation in ego psychology and cultural studies, by focusing on theories of identity development, identity crisis, and eventually a psychosocial theory of development that included the entire lifespan.   I can see why Erik Erikson, eight years younger than Norman Rockwell, may have been a good fit as a therapist.  Both Rockwell and Erikson were ambitious men within their own fields, working creatively to capture something evocative about the human condition.  Both are interested in depicting the challenges and adventures that occur across the lifespan.  Solomon’s research suggests that after beginning treatment with Erikson, Rockwell’s work became more “psychological” in character, giving an analysis of several of his paintings to illustrate her point.  Erikson, the therapist, and at times social companion of Rockwell, is portrayed as dealing forthrightly, sensitively, and sometimes paternalistically with his patient.    

The scenes and the landscape Solomon describes are largely intact in Stockbridge.  The people are the stuff of legend---Rockwell, Erikson, Robert Knight, Margaret Brenman-Gibson.  The intersection of Austen Riggs, Rockwell, Stockbridge, American psychoanalysis, art, and family strife all make for a riveting story of time and place.

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