In 1955, Pan American World Airlines, the nation's leading airline, placed an order for twenty Boeing 707s; they were the first airline to do so. This move, along with their 1956 introduction of the Douglas DC-7C, or so called "Seven Seas," put the airline at the forefront of international travel. In 1956, the airline, known simply as Pan Am, commissioned J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency to create a new marketing campaign to highlight the breadth and diversity of their destinations. The agency enlisted Norman Rockwell to create a series of advertisements featuring a variety of cities around the world, including London, Rome, Tokyo, and Hawaii.
By 1956, Rockwell was already a celebrity in his own right. As America's preeminent illustrator, Rockwell was one of the greatest mass communicators of the 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. By the time he was selected for this commission, he had already painted approximately three hundred covers for The Saturday Evening Post and his imagery was as instantly recognizable as it was ubiquitous. Rockwell himself was recognized wherever he went. This is no doubt why the airline, in addition to the printed advertisement campaign, created a two part documentary that featured highlights from his travels.
The Thing to Do With Life is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe) is the most elaborate and large-scale example from the campaign and it is a true celebration of American tourism. Originally published in Life Magazine in 1956, the charming and humorous image features an American couple in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe, called the Ka Moi. The canoe was owned by the Outrigger Canoe Club, a popular destination in Honolulu. Like many of Rockwell's most successful images, The Thing to Do With Life is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe) is a study in contrasts. Here he has created a clever composition that juxtaposes the tourists with the locals to animate the composition. The Hawaiian boys are all lurched forward, aggressively paddling the boat through the waves. Their dark skin and strong physique is emphasized by their lack of shirts. Their shorts bear the logo of the renowned Outrigger Canoe Club. The tourists, on the other hand, are leaning backwards, with firm grips on the side of the boat, indicating their unease with the sea. They are adorned in matching Hawaiian shirts, straw hats and leis, accompanied by their Pan Am travel bag. Diamond Head, one of the most recognizable landmarks in Hawaii, is depicted in the background.
According to Laurie Norton Moffatt, for this commission, Rockwell would have preferred to illustrate the "indigenous peoples and customs of the many countries he visited, as can be seen in his sketchbook pages at the end of this section. He was asked, however, to focus on the tourist highlights through the journey." (Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 489) In The Thing to Do With Life is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe), Rockwell has succeeded in obliging the demands of the commission while still maintaining his trademark sense of humor. In this composition, Rockwell indicates the couple's desire to fit in, by way of their outfits, and the discord between perceived customs and actual practice. The title, which is a celebration of travel and enjoying vacation, is mocked by the anxious grips and stiff backs of the tourists on the boat. A close analysis of Rockwell's preferred themes reveals his preference for "Situations involving small embarrassments, discomforts, and humiliation [which] have provided humorous [images] all the way through." (T.S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, New York, 1972, pp. 44-45) The Thing to Do With Life is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe) is the only known painting of Hawaii by the artist.