For the next five months, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will play host to 23 pieces of American cultural history. A free exhibition of oil paintings by famed illustrator Norman Rockwell opens Friday, 19 July, at the Church History Museum and will remain through 31 December 2013.
Though Rockwell may be best known for his Saturday Evening Post cover art, the artist also created hundreds of illustrations related to Scouting. Most of the paintings in the exhibit were created for the Brown & Bigelow Scouting calendar, popular in the U.S. in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. From 1925 to 1976, Rockwell created over 50 idyllic paintings of Boy Scouts for the calendar, which were then featured on the cover of Boys’ Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), each February.
The exhibition, American Originals: Norman Rockwell and Scouting, is part of the collection of the National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas. It was brought to the museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the charter agreement between the Church and BSA. Officials from the Church and BSA began discussions about commemorating the 100th anniversary about two years ago and agreed to bring the collection to Salt Lake City. Commemorations of the relationship took place in the 25th, 50th and 75th anniversary years as well.
The print images of Rockwell’s work, familiar to many, can’t fully capture the vibrancy and detail of the original paintings, says Jeremy Clowe of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
“There really is no comparison,” Clowe says. “Rockwell had an uncanny ability to capture light. There’s an energy that really comes through the canvas.”
Rockwell worked closely with BSA leadership to ensure his paintings embodied the ideal Boy Scout and the virtues of Scouting. As Rockwell told Scouting magazine in 1978, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” In Rockwell’s paintings, the idealized subjects appear, just as the Scout Law describes, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind and obedient.
Several pieces focus on duty to God and country, part of the Scout Oath. In “We Thank Thee, O’ Lord,” Rockwell depicts a group of Scouts saying grace at a camp dinner table, heads bowed. In 1963, Rockwell remarked that his most popular Boy Scout calendar illustrations were “the three or four with a religious flavor.”
Another common theme is service; a number of works portray Scouts helping others, with titles such as, “A Daily Good Turn” and “Friend in Need.”
The Church History Museum has also created an accompanying exhibit about the history of Scouting and the Church. With young patrons in mind, curators designed the exhibit to evoke a Scout camp, “Camp Good Turn,” and Scouts who attend can use the exhibit to fulfill some merit badge requirements. The exhibit includes hands-on stations that highlight original Boy Scout activities from the early 20th century, including tracking games, semaphore flags and knot tying.
“It’s created for boys to come and learn a little bit about the basic history of Scouting and the Church,” says Ray Halls, curator at the Church History Museum. “It’s called ‘Camp Good Turn,’ playing off the idea of Scouts doing a good turn daily.”
It was one British Boy Scout’s “good turn,” or act of service, that helped bring the Scouting program to the United States from England, where it originated. In 1909, Chicago newspaper publisher William Boyce became lost in a dense London fog. A boy came to his aid and after helping Boyce find his destination, refused a tip, telling Boyce it was his “good turn” for the day. Boyce asked what he meant, and the boy said, “I’m a Boy Scout, and we Boy Scouts do a daily good turn.” Boyce later sought out more information about the Scouts, meeting with Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the British founder of the Boy Scouts. As a result, William Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America on 8 February 1910.
Included in the exhibit is the official charter outlining the partnership between BSA and the Church, signed on 9 June 1913. The first known Boy Scout troop in Utah was formed in 1910 at the request of 22-year-old Thomas G. Wood, an English emigrant, for the boys in his Salt Lake City congregation. Over the next few years, Scouting became popular among Church members, and it became apparent that an official relationship between the Church and BSA would benefit both organizations. The details of the relationship were discussed by officials from both organizations, and an agreement to affiliate was reached in May 1913.
Both exhibits include historical Scouting uniform pieces and other objects. The Rockwell exhibit displays some of the same items that appear in the paintings.
“The exhibition shows a little bit of the process that Rockwell went through to create a painting,” Halls says. “And of course, he used the original uniform items, because the Scouts wanted every detail to be correct.”
The Church History Museum is located directly west of Temple Square at 45 North West Temple Street in Salt Lake City. The Norman Rockwell paintings will remain on display through 31 December 2013, and “Camp Good Turn” will be open through October of 2014.