Although painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell wasn’t a founding father, there are few things more American than his art. From 1916 until 1963, he re-created scenes from everyday life on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, back then the most widely circulated magazine in the U.S. Throughout his career, Rockwell painted American presidents, and his work now decorates hallways inside the White House. His “Freedom From Want” canvas may be the best-known visual ode to the Thanksgiving holiday that millions of Americans will celebrate tomorrow.
It’s a testament to the refined artistic tastes of GE’s marketing department that it hired Rockwell in the 1920s to make a series of paintings and drawings for an ad campaign promoting the company’s Mazda electric lamps. (Rockwell is far from the only famous artist GE’s worked with over the decades. Others include Kurt Vonnegut, Ronald Reagan and, most recently, Ron Howard, Paul Giamatti, Angela Bassett and others.)
The Norman Rockwell Museum believes the painter created “at least 20 advertising illustrations” for GE. Seven on them — all large oil paintings that range in style from Dutch masters to impressionism — are still on display at GE Lighting’s Nela Park historical campus in East Cleveland, Ohio. (The company gave some of the rest away decades ago as retirement gifts to executives.)
Like many other Rockwell paintings, the work he did for GE captured ordinary Americans discovering the electric light and putting it in their homes. Michael J.P. Collins, former president of the Rockwell Society of America, wrote that the light campaign “marked a major turning point in [Rockwell’s] career. It required something more of him than mere talent: to capture the profound change which the new electric light brought to American life, he had to explore its impact on a whole range of traditional family activities.”
GE published the works in the Post and other magazines, including Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal, and also as calendar art. “In the 1920s and 1930s, most of the lightbulb dealers were electrical shops that specialized in all kinds of appliances and lighting fixtures,” said Mary Beth Gotti, who manages GE’s Lighting Institute in Ohio. “GE provided them with merchandising materials including signs, display stands, posters, blotters — and calendars. These calendars featured the works of many noted artists, including Rockwell and also Maxfield Parrish.”
Almost a century later, GE lights, a number of them energy-efficient LEDs, will illuminate many Thanksgiving dinners. In cities like San Diego and Jacksonville, “intelligent” GE LED streetlights will light the way home for locals and, soon enough, help them avoid traffic and find a parking spot. So thanks for the lights!