‘The Scoutmaster’ turns 60: Behind the Rockwell classic

On its surface, Norman Rockwell’s The Scoutmaster painting depicts a satisfied and pensive adult leader peering into a fading campfire. The sun has set. The Scouts are asleep. All is quiet.

But go a layer deeper, and there’s more to The Scoutmaster than meets the eye.

This year marks 60 years since Rockwell published this tribute to Scoutmasters everywhere. That makes it a perfect time to look at the colorful story behind the iconic painting.

How did a Jamboree photo shoot — in the daytime — turn into a nighttime scene? How did the future CEO of the Seattle Mariners find his way into Rockwell’s painting? And why does this piece continue to resonate with Scoutmasters?

The fascinating story is below.

The Scoutmaster Brown & BigelowThe Jamboree photo shoot

Rockwell painted from photographs. He would take a photo of a scene and return to his studio to create a painting inspired by the image.

Wanting to dedicate a painting to American Scoutmasters, Rockwell visited the 1953 National Scout Jamboree in Irvine Ranch, Calif., to find a Scoutmaster to photograph.

“Those Scoutmasters truly have something,” Rockwell said. “I have admired their skill as I have watched them work with boys. Talk about good Americans, doing things for their community. They’re doing it.”

Rockwell arranged for a troop to set up a model campsite and then hunted for a model Scoutmaster. He found Marshall Ammerman, a professional Scouter and former Scoutmaster.

Then Rockwell found four Scouts to build a campfire and pretend to be sleeping. It was the middle of the day, and it was 90 degrees in the shade. Not exactly napping weather.

Later, back in his studio, Rockwell turned day into night.

The Scoutmaster Scoutmaster's HandbookThe boy in the white shirt

You won’t recognize Howard Lincoln in The Scoutmaster, but Lincoln wanted to make sure his mother did.

Lincoln, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, former chairman of Nintendo of America, and current chairman and CEO of the Seattle Mariners, is the Scout with blonde hair and wearing white.

Once he was tucked in to bed, Lincoln made sure to position himself so Rockwell could see his face. He wanted his mother to recognize him.

In 1954, Rockwell sent to Lincoln a release form and his payment for helping make what would become a Scouting classic: $25.

Two years after that, The Scoutmaster was included in the 1956 Brown & Bigelow calendar.

The Scoutmaster Boys' Life 1956The legacy of The Scoutmaster

Rockwell was art director of Boys’ Life magazine, and his work was used on dozens of BL covers. (See the complete gallery here.)

The February 1956 issue of BL featured The Scoutmaster. The painting also served as cover art for the fifth edition of the Scoutmaster’s Handbook, in use from 1959 to 1972.

To many in Scouting, myself included, The Scoutmaster is Rockwell’s finest work for the Boy Scouts of America.

Maybe it’s a little idealistic to think that today’s Scouts would fall asleep that quickly — and with no electronic devices in sight — but the message endures. It’s not hard to see in this Scoutmaster the pride and sense of purpose felt by the millions of adults who have dedicated their lives to this movement.

After mentoring young people all day, an adult leader who pauses before bedtime can know that he or she truly made a difference. That will never change.