Norman Rockwell: Celebrating America

by Susan Kay Crawford and Mark Hunt

 



 

Although Rockwell left his salaried position with BSA, his association with the group continued. He enlisted in the Navy in 1917, but due to his physical stature he never saw active duty. Stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, the artist was given a "morale" job, drawing cartoons and producing layouts for Ashore and Afloat, the camp newspaper. Rockwell was allowed to continue his outside career while in the Service and during this time he created several covers for The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Country Gentleman magazines. He also took on a few special assignments, including a poster for the Boy Scouts to promote their war service projects. (The Boy Scouts made significant contributions to the war effort by selling Liberty Loan bonds, collecting peach pits for gas mask filters, planting war gardens, and acting as messengers and lookouts).

The American Red Cross honored the Boy Scouts for their war efforts by dedicating four pages of their November 1918 magazine to them and hiring Rockwell to create four Scout paintings. The original paintings and the engraver's plates for prints were presented to BSA, who made good use of this gift. The plates were used for Boys' Life covers and sets of prints were sold to raise funds for the Scouting program.

During the early 1920s an executive at Brown & Bigelow, the largest calendar publishing house in the country, saw Rockwell's Red Cross paintings and was struck with the idea that a calendar featuring Boy Scouts, the nation's fastest growing youth movement, would be very popular. Brown & Bigelow approached BSA with the idea and an alliance was formed. The first Boy Scout calendar was published in 1925, using the painting A Red Cross Man in the Making. Brown & Bigelow believed in the success of the project, and by the fall of 1924 they already had BSA and Rockwell working on the 1926 calendar. The artist did the painting free of charge as a thank you to the Scouts for helping him get a start in his career. The painting, A Good Turn, was literally a good turn by Rockwell for the Boy Scouts and was the first painting he completed specifically for the calendar series.

Between 1925 and 1976 Rockwell missed only two years (1928 and 1930), creating a total of fifty calendar paintings for BSA and Brown & Bigelow, forty of which are in The National Scouting Museum collection. These images were incredibly popular, and BSA used them extensively for the promotion of all Scouting programs. In addition to the calendar, each year's picture was featured on the cover of the February issue of Boys' Life magazine. Posters, plates, mugs, figurines, and even stamps of the images were produced and BSA featured several of the paintings as covers for their handbooks. Scouting magazine used the Rockwell covers for many of its issues as well, and on a local level, councils and troops used the images on brochures for Courts of Honor and Blue and Gold banquets. Rockwell's Scouting paintings were reproduced and seen everywhere in the Scouting world.

The artist's good temper was surely a factor in his success. The staff of BSA worked closely with him from start to finish of each painting. BSA usually came up with the idea for each of the calendar paintings and, early in Rockwell's career, would even send someone to his studio to check on his progress. They insisted that all details in the painting were accurate: the uniform had to be spotless, all insignia had to be in the correct position, and the model portraying the Scout had to be a wholesome, clean-cut youth. BSA was very demanding of the artist who, fortunately, took their demands in stride.

In 1932 BSA wanted to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of George Washington's birth. The resulting painting, A Scout is Loyal, shows a larger-than-life George Washington with a Scout in the foreground. In four of its calendar paintings BSA chose to honor the Scoutmaster; these include The Campfire Story and Pointing the Way. For Rockwell's seventy-fifth birthday BSA insisted that the artist place himself in the 1969 calendar painting. Rockwell had used himself as a model for many of his paintings, but had never before been required to make himself the central figure. Beyond the Easel was a tribute to Rockwell, honoring him as he had honored Scouting for so many years.

To keep up with the tremendous amount of work, Rockwell developed a disciplined system for producing paintings. Initially he turned BSA's ideas into drawings, beginning with small idea sketches either in pencil or oil. After producing the sketch, he showed it to BSA for their approval before proceeding. With that accomplished, he assembled his models, props and furnishings. Through the mid-1930s Rockwell worked from live models, but this process was so tedious for both artist and model that he began drawing from photographs taken at modeling sessions instead. He used neighbors, friends, family, and sometimes clients as prototypes for the people in his paintings. For example, his son Tom posed as an Explorer Scout in On My Honor, and BSA President Irving Feist and Chief Scout Executive Alden Barber posed for characters in America's Manpower Begins with Boypower. A professional photographer would often take seventy or eighty photographs for each painting. Rockwell kept these on file, sometimes using settings -- street scenes, landscapes, etc. -- from one painting for another. Because of his popularity, deadlines were always a problem and the photo file helped to ease this. A Scout painting, however, would sometimes share certain similarities with a Post cover. For example, the 1968 painting Scouting is Outing shows a street scene reminiscent of the 1953 Post cover Walking to Church.

 


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