The Stepford Scouts: An Analysis of Beyond the Easel by Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell’s illustration Beyond the Easel (BTE) is a strange image. First it is a portrait of the artist as an old man, and as a scout dignitary or leader. From what I read, Rockwell was never a member of the Boy Scouts, (I can’t make sense of the writing over his shirt pocket and it certainly isn’t meant to say his name or Boy Scouts of America) but according to Ray Hills at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Rockwell held an admiration for the group. Painted in 1969, BTE depicts five boy scouts who look into the future ready to, theoretically, deny the free-love and acid rock Woodstock-loving dirty hippies who engaged in sit-ins and anti-war protests and to lead America into tomorrow with better morals and more obedience.

A good image of the illustration, as it’s not in public domain, may be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/NormanRockwellArt/comments/f3uby7/beyond_the_easel_from_the_series_scouting_through/

As an aside, something went haywire because most of those hippies became card-carrying Neo-liberal capitalist conformists who worked to milk the system for as much as they could get, bought everything offered to them, did a 180 to believe government was on their side, and finally just had to build their forever home on some secluded wooded plot. For all of this they introduced themselves as philanthropists, mainly because they donated their used eye glasses to Lion’s Club International via boxes at their local Walmart. Maybe the lesson here is that the indoctrination program of the USA worked really well, arguably in part due to images such as this one.

An illustration such as BTE is the end result of a larger propagandic picture. I have no idea of Rockwell’s political beliefs or stances, but I know he was an illustrator who was frequently commissioned to illustrate assigned ideas. According to Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knutson who wrote on Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms, the artist painted 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Apparently, before painting the Freedoms, Rockwell liaised with Washington and supported the WWII effort. (The Wiki article on The Four Freedoms lists secondary sources for anyone interested). In turn, Washington at the Office of War Information, was clear that they intended to use artists in their publicity campaigns. The Saturday Evening Post commissioned Rockwell and gave him two months to complete The Four Freedoms which they would run with a printing of Roosevelt’s 1941 speech known as ‘The Four Freedoms Speech.’

Illustrations of on magazine covers of The Saturday Evening Post typically promoted a dominant ideology of what it meant to be an American: God, freedom, family, and apple pie, and so on, it was whistle stop nostalgia and the stuff of Andy Hardy movies. Later in 1977 Rockwell was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford for Rockwell’s “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country,” and for portraying “the American scene with unrivaled freshness and clarity” (Norman Rockwell Museum). Trippy man, no, I mean Gerald Ford, he stumbled and tripped a lot.

And finally as many illustrators did to save time, Rockwell often copied photographs, although he did not publicly admit this until after 1940, evidently. Claire O’Neill writing for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (January 29, 2009) spoke about the Rockwell illustration of the boy about to get a shot from the doctor, “Imagine my shock when I saw a photograph of the exact doctor’s office scene in that painting.” All of this background is to set the scene that illustrators typically exist in a sort of limbo between assigned direction and artistic self-determination, wherein simple skills of copying are highlighted over creative risk-taking. (For more about Rockwell’s process, this video, Norman Rockwell’s Painting Process https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlufEZCh1Mk shows the relationship of the photos to the final art.)

But I want to focus our illustration at hand, Beyond the Easel. From what I read, for his 75th birthday, Brown & Bigelow, calendar publishers, and the Boy Scouts of America asked Rockwell to create an illustration; I couldn’t locate the exact language of the direction either commissioning party might have given Rockwell. Brown & Bigelow typically released a yearly calendar for the Boy Scouts and Rockwell did numerous boy scout illustrations. The resultant art, BTE, is the same staid and stiff stuff Rockwell typically did. It is another copy of a photograph most likely (I didn’t see the reference photos online but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some archived at the Rockwell museum).

People who know little about art love this style of narrative illustration. They feel smarmy over the importance of family or cringe with empathy as the boy is about to be vaccinated, or leave home, and they laugh at the friendly small town goodness of the chubby cop who intercepted the runaway kid and who is now buying the kid most likely a chocolate malt — the kid will be back home by dinnertime. The messages are simple, obvious, and reassuring. The illustrations engender reassuring common emotions, they offer good outcomes, they present America was a hometown place. For the uneducated-about-art-public, Rockwell’s style of illustration was what art should be about, it still is given the numbers of Rockwells and Thomas Kinkades that adorn homes. Looking beyond the magazine, this same brand of flat footed obviousness hasn’t gone away, it is found in most television shows and Hollywood movies.

I may have once seen BTE in person once, having visited The Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but if so the experience wasn’t memorable as I tend to forget illustrations generally. I think that I forget them because they are part of the bucket labeled lowest common denominator works of art as the works pander with the easiest and most consumable representations. They are forgettable in the way that ads generally are forgettable.

A quote by John Stuart Mill from On Liberty sums up Rockwell’s art public for me: “It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choices only among things commonly done; peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes.” I’m not surprised that when I search out the painting I get a bazillion hits for Beyond the Easel plates, yes plates.

Beyond the Easel, may be read as presenting Rockwell as the quintessential American visual commentator — after all he showed America to America for years. He’s now older and holding brushes, a mahl stick, and a rag with only red, white, and blue on it (the colors of the American flag if you didn’t catch that); again everything must be obvious. He looks at his painted illustration, or slightly past it, hard to tell exactly.

This is into the future look is also made explicit for the slow witted poor visual readers by the illustration’s title. The cadre of Boy Scouts, good boys (because of their scout oath), clean cut, neat (shirts tucked in), and mostly white, provide a clear normative subtext of tomorrow’s men who will eventually lead America forward.

The boys presumably see a glimpse of the future by what is pictured on Rockwell’s canvas that sits on an easel in this illustration, but they must and do look farther because the odds are that they’ll outlive the old man and so see beyond what he can see. What Rockwell and the publishers probably failed to catch were the subtexts arising from the illustration that undermined the superficial message.

The scout members are either from different troops or of different ranks as indicated by the various neckerchiefs and slides. We wonder why the scouts gave Rockwell a uniform if he wasn’t a member — is this normal or is it akin to cultural appropriation like the time Justin Trudeau and family traveled to India and donned traditional Indian attire, to the amusement of both Indians and many media pundits.

The boys stand around and two of them have hands in their pockets, which in the United States symbolizes shyness, a lack of confidence, or a lack of knowing what to do next. We have the right to ask, are such unconfident young men the type we want to lead us into the future? We can ask why the boy in the foreground is so pessimistic, does tomorrow look that bad? We wonder if the Boy Scouts of America and the calendar makers wanted to convey such a pessimistic view.

Let’s continue our look at the subtexts found in the illustration. Arguably scouting was seen as a training ground for the leaders of tomorrow. It could also be said that scouts were in part indoctrinated through social influence and inculcation via obedience. Scouts like many groups in American society prepared young adults for a transition to an adulthood that presumably included military, corporate, and nationalist alignment. Certainly there are two elephants in the room. The first is that in 1969 America was full bore involved in the Vietnam War and the newly elected President gave his Nixon Doctrine speech in which he spoke of USA relations with “our Asian friends,” that is after the USA had already killed a few hundred thousand Vietnamese people. No wonder the boy at the back of the group looks so shell-shocked. Secondly, it’s nearly impossible not to recollect images of the Deutches Jungvolk and a quote from Mein Kampf, “Whoever has the youth has the future.” This statement in and of itself is a vague platitude, probably the stuff of propaganda 101, but works of art become situated within a history of images and thought, whether the artist intends it or not. Works that live to support a propagandic function may also die in a critique of their propagandic function.

Boy Scouts in America pledge duty and allegiance to God and country, in Canada to love and serve God, Queen, country, and fellowman, and back in Germany the Deutches Jungvolk pledged to the Fuhrer and country, so help them God, it said. Ideology streams through all instances of such boy band oaths. The idea that art reinforced dominant ideological norms was probably not lost on editors of magazines that commissioned illustrations. Even today, print and digital magazines promote specific ideological positions through image and text. What’s harder for me to see is how early magazine editors didn’t connect this illustration with German national socialist art with its emphasis on realism, love of homeland, comprehensibility to the common person, and the view that our future boys at war is a great thing. Or, maybe the publishers and the Boy Scouts of America knew exactly what they were doing in reflecting these parts of the dominant American ideology. By 1969 the American pubic’s general support for the Vietnam War was diminishing but let’s not be fooled, America remained far more conservative than the Woodstock concert might lead us to believe.

The scout laws include the word “obedient” and I quote from the Scout Handbook, “A Scout is obedient. A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobeying them.” A few people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcom X or groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) probably would have advocated there were times when civil disobedience was not only important but necessary. One imagines more of the illustration’s subtext reading, ‘God forbid, we don’t want rebellion and the conformist tan-clad lads are here to help.’ I point out that in the same year that BTE was painted, the largest protest for peace and against the Vietnam War to date took place in Washington, D.C. policed by 40,000 police and national guard. It was estimated about half a million people attended. The United Press International (UPI) labeled the protesters “shouting, paint-throwing extremists.” (stipes.com Washington in 1969 hosted largest antiwar protest in US history). Mass obedience, apparently loved by the government, does not always find reflection in historical fact. And since we’re discussing conformist, actions, and I kid you not, on May 6, 2020 the Boy Scouts of America unveiled a coronavirus merit badge. Asking for obedience to and conformity with dominant ideologies may appear to some to be optimistic and hopeful, but for others, it may appear a bit too close to an uncritical acceptance of totalitarianism. However, most people who enjoy the superficial consumption of illustrations get cranky over critical analysis and they tend to discount subtext readings. They prefer to say things like, “C’mon man, it’s just a bunch of good young men ensuring our future.”

To deconstruct a bit more, we’ve seen over the years controversies within the scouts including racial segregation as late as 1974 (these from Wiki) efforts to deny atheists, bans on gays, and challenges based on gender. Typically at least in the United States, a private membership club that is not open to the public can make its own rules no matter how distasteful to some. And here we see the loophole for legal challenges that have taken place and resultantly initiated change.

I was in the scouts once and I camped a lot, learned the knots, learned to be a fundraising lackey for the association, learned to be strictly obedient, to send newbies on nighttime snipe hunts, learned to join in picking on the weakest troop members. I won’t tell the story of one of our troop leaders who after resigning went door to door to try to convince everyone certain accusations had never been true. When I look back on my time in scouts, I don’t have a clue what the whole thing was all about or what it gave me, I suppose it was in part to keep idle hands busy. At the end of it all, when I was almost at the highest level, I had a realization it felt more that people trying to mold me into something I wasn’t, I was attempting to articulate the idea of nationalist indoctrination even though at the time I didn’t have the language.

To take the illustration as it was intended, as an illustration, brings in a more formal art critique. Rockwell relies upon what artist’s call “local color,” meaning the same color is repeated over the entirety of an object often with black added to make shadows and white added to make highlights. For example, Rockwell has painted his head in a style much like Lucien Freud (although lacking both Freud’s energetic marks and considered subtlety of perceived color — and here we see the artist’s tendency to paint simply a flesh color with a darker and lighter version. Local color is also found in the simple repeated same color, for example in the blobby roundish leaves on the right side of the illustration that look repetitively poked onto the canvas using a Bob Ross bouncing brush. These artistic decisions are beginner decisions that better artists often use as a shorthand, to their detriment. We remember this is an illustration for hire, it’s not intended to be great painting.

The youths leading America into tomorrow sure don’t look very happy. Given the era we could probably equally suggest they are a bunch of stoners putting on the serious act to hide the fact they’re half-baked into oblivion, craving brownies and canteens of water. We have little evidence of any intent or state of mind on their part. All the boys but one have the same nose as Rockwell. The boy in the foreground left has a rubber thumb and he wears his pants up as high as Carey Grant and Randolph Scott in the 1930’s. It’s clear that if the future includes ironing clothes, America is done for. And why are they all slouching toward tomorrow?

The artist’s left hand has turned to wax and hovers in space, apparently unconnected to anything, and his left arm has withered to the thickness of a mahl stick and a few thin paint brush handles. Apparently two of the boys traded socks, as they are both rolled down one overlap but they end up different lengths. The boy third from the left, standing, has a mouth nearly on his chin. The boy at the front of Rockwell lost the calf muscle on his right leg. The boy third from the left standing seems he lost one leg entirely. The same boy’s neckerchief appears to overlap the chest of the boy standing to his right. The boy standing in the middle would probably have to have a hole in his pocket to hide that much hand. Relative heights of all the people are out of wack but I’d need to do some measurements to figure the exact relationship. At any rate the tall boy in the front is probably about 7 feet tall, and the boy third from the left standing is probably also too tall. Typically a boy the age of the one squatting in the foreground would be a cub scout.

This is always the problem with copying from photographs, things occur through the lens that often make little sense in the larger scheme of painting coherency. Getting it down because that’s what the camera showed is generally a very good rationale for such blatantly wrong-looking results. Being strictly faithful to a photograph may be a good decision for photorealist art or meta-painting that is specifically intended to reference the camera and create a dialogic critique of the lens but neither were Rockwell’s intention. He might have iced his commission mandates with decisions he thought might help generate a specific feeling about boys and the future but what that exact feeling he wanted viewers of Beyond the Easel to get is fully unclear and certainly it’s pessimistic. In the illustration, the artist seems content but nobody else does so my take away is that if you want to be happy become an artist, not a scout.

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Christopher Willard

Christopher Willard

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”