As America's preeminent illustrator, Rockwell was one of the greatest mass communicators of the twentieth century. Painting a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, he helped forge a sense of national identity through his art. In doing so, Rockwell became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created.
Rockwell began his career in 1912, at the age of eighteen, when he was hired by Boys’ Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. Later in his life, Rockwell noted; “My experience on Boys’ Life helped me build some confidence in myself at a time when I needed courage – needed to believe in myself.” In gratitude, Rockwell made a life-long commitment to the Boy Scouts of America, producing their annual calendar illustrations from 1925 to 1976. Rockwell became the visual spokesman for the Boy Scout Movement, bringing its spirit and ideals to life through hundreds of paintings which were reproduced throughout his career in Boys’ Life and in the Boy Scouts Calendar, many of which would have been common place within the American home in the mid twentieth-century.
In 1916 Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post. This marked the start of a life long association that resulted in over 300 cover illustrations, all of which revealed Rockwell’s unparalleled ability to express the spirit of American history and culture. The Saturday Evening Postbecame the highest circulated magazine in America, and Rockwell’s cover illustrations played a key role in its popularity. Rockwell’s unique ability to capture the everyday lives of the American population and to create scenes that had the possibility of occurring in any town or home, resonated with the magazine’s readers. The publication of each Post cover seemed to outdo the last as again and again Rockwell presented the country with imaginative images that confronted the issues of the American present, yet were steeped in the values of its past.
In his early career Rockwell was influenced by the most popular and fashionable illustrators of the time, J. C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish and Howard Pyle, and had numerous works by these artists displayed in his studio throughout his career. American illustration holds a special place within the context of American art. Before television entered the American home, newspapers and magazines were the primary news sources for the nation. They were also the barometer of public opinion, and naturally, the artists who illustrated these periodicals had a great deal of influence on the perception of their nation. Rockwell contributed to the national conversation by visually translating significant moments in American culture and politics with his classic warmth, wit and insight.
Over his long career, and through his association with both Boys’ Life and The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s imagery undoubtedly evolved over time to engage with changing cultural norms and social values, but the timeless familiarity of his work remained a constant. The characters he depicted and the situations he conjured remain just as relevant and relatable today.