Rockwell demonstrated serious talent from an early age. Pictured above is his earliest surviving work, rendered at the age of 17. It's is a scene from "The Deserted Village," a 1770 poem by Oliver Goldsmith. In the Smithsonian magazine, Deborah Solomon describes it:
It was incredible to see—a marvel of precocious draftsmanship and a shockingly macabre work for an artist known for his folksy humor. Rockwell undertook it as a class assignment. Technically, it’s an illustration of a scene from “The Deserted Village,” the 18th-century pastoral poem by Oliver Goldsmith. It takes you into a small, tenebrous, candlelit room where a sick boy lies supine in bed, a sheet pulled up to his chin. A village preacher, shown from the back in his long coat and white wig, kneels at the boy’s side. A grandfather clock looms dramatically in the center of the composition, infusing the scene with a time-is-ticking ominousness. Perhaps taking his cue from Rembrandt, Rockwell is able to extract great pictorial drama from the play of candlelight on the back wall of the room, a glimpse of radiance in the unreachable distance.
Rockwell had been taught in Thomas Fogarty’s illustration class that pictures are “the servant of text.” But here he breaks that rule. Traditionally, illustrations for “The Deserted Village” have emphasized the theme of exodus, portraying men and women driven out of an idyllic, tree-laden English landscape. But Rockwell moved his scene indoors and chose to capture a moment of tenderness between an older man and a young man, even though no such scene is described in the poem.
Put another way, Rockwell was able to do the double duty of fulfilling the requirements of illustration while staying true to his emotional instincts. The thrill of his work is that he was able to use a commercial form to work out his private obsessions.