On a recent Sunday morning I heard a sermon about being thankful. In illustrating a point about our formalized tradition of Thanksgiving, the pastor invoked Norman Rockwell’s well-known picture of a robust turkey on a platter being brought in to an elaborately-set dining table, while happy harmonious family members crowd around in eager anticipation.
That painting, which at one time was familiar to almost everyone in America just by hearing that description alone, is actually entitled Freedom From Want, and is one of a four-part series Rockwell painted called The Four Freedoms. In January 1941, almost a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Franklin Roosevelt had stated that “in the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” Those freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—quickly became something like shorthand for the underlying reason for fighting the war.
Rockwell wanted to translate those abstract ideas into something the American people could see and to which they could relate, and in the spring of 1943 painted his vision of each freedom. They were a big hit and the government soon sent the paintings on a tour around the country as part of one of its war bond drives.
It was a bold undertaking for Rockwell, much bolder than it seems today, and strikingly modern. After all, how best could an artist communicate the abstract notion of “freedom from want?” Harder still, how could one embody “freedom from fear” in a single image? (Less difficult in this regard were the other two in the series, and I think that’s why I find them less compelling.) Much later, in the post war years, American artists set about communicating things like anxiety, energy, and materialism, and decided that abstract forms did it best. But for a nation teetering on the edge of war, Rockwell believed that crucial ideas like Roosevelt’s needed to take on tangible and relatable forms.
Many of Rockwell’s best-known images beyond these four have a wry smile flitting about the edge. The Four Freedoms do not. They are earnest in a way approached only by Rockwell’s later 1960s commentary on racism (The Problem We All Live With), and on other social strains the nation was undergoing.
In 1978, critic Robert Hughes said that Rockwell was one of two artists (the other being Walt Disney) who was familiar to nearly everyone in America, “rich or poor, black or white, museumgoer or not, illiterate or Ph.D. To most he was a master: sane, comprehensible, and perfectly attuned to what they wanted in a picture.” Rockwell “lived at a time when museum art tended to intimidate or bore the American audience,” Hughes wrote. But his work was refreshingly different. “It was seen, not as a painting, but as windows opening onto slices of life.” The turkey in Freedom from Want, for example, “is an image of virtuous abundance rather than extravagance, a Puritan tone confirmed by the glasses of plain water on the table.”
A few years ago a huge Rockwell retrospective toured the country drawing enthusiastic crowds wherever it went. In reviewing it, a critic for The New Yorker characterized the artist as a “Mark Twain-like observer of human folly who is continually saved from cynicism by a tender heart.” Indeed, I think that’s the most American quality Rockwell seeks to show us about ourselves. Even today as we the people still stumble between cynicism and tenderness, Rockwell encourages our allegiance to the latter. I’m thankful that quality remains visible after all these years.
Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell,1943 oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts