'Freedom From Want' and Norman Rockwell are about more than nostalgia

Inspired by Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress about four basic human rights, Rockwell created four paintings, starting with Freedom From Want.
Inspired by Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress about four basic human rights, Rockwell created four paintings, starting with Freedom From Want.
Published Nov. 17, 2012

Norman Rockwell once said, "I paint life as I would like it to be." And no other Rockwell painting better embodies that aspiration than Freedom From Want, one of his most beloved works and the most famous representation of America's quintessential national holiday, Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving, on Thursday, comes about two weeks after an election day that ended more than a year of divisive politics and campaigning. It was a year far different from 1943, when Rockwell debuted Freedom From Want. And demographically, its image represents less and less who we are as Americans and how we live. Some might even find it offensive rather than sweet in its visual definition of an ideal American family.

There is, though, more than surface nostalgia in this painting and its artist when we take a closer look.

The artist

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) found success in illustration early, while still a teenager, and enjoyed it until he died. In his prime, he was sought after as an illustrator and worked for many periodicals, but his association with the Saturday Evening Post was the most famous and enduring. In 1916 when he was 22, he was commissioned for his first Post cover and during almost 50 years created several hundred more.

Rockwell specialized in collective innocence, distilling beliefs about American virtue and its roots in small-town values into narratives that celebrated "ordinary" people and their fundamental goodness.

He was a meticulous and technically brilliant draftsman and painter and spent inordinate amounts of time on the paintings that would be printed as magazine cover illustrations. For example, though he did about 320 covers for the Post, which was then a weekly, when they are spread over more than four decades, the output is small. Still, he was prolific, producing more than 4,000 original works both for periodicals and corporate advertising. Most of the surviving ones are in public collections.

He was paid well but was never wealthy until later in life, when he began selling print editions of his paintings. As was the custom with illustrators, he kept the original paintings. He rarely sold them, but occasionally gave them away. His charitable work included an original painting for the annual Boy Scout calendar.

His life wasn't as idyllic as his subject matter. He lived most of his adult life in New England, which provided both inspiration and real-life models for his paintings. His first marriage ended in divorce. He was married to his second wife for almost 28 years and they had three sons. When her depression deepened in 1958, she was institutionalized and died in 1959 after a heart attack. His last marriage, beginning in 1961 and lasting until his death, seems to have been his most tranquil, though an analyst he was seeing supposedly said, "He painted his happiness but did not live it."

Because of his benign subject matter, people assumed he was a political conservative, though he actually held many liberal views. But he was beholden to his employers like the Post, whose editors, for example, mandated that black people could only be portrayed as lower working class. He jumped to Look magazine in 1963 where he could portray scenes dealing with civil rights and social unrest.

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The painting

Freedom From Want is part of Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings. He was inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt's January 1941 address to Congress in which he listed four basic and universal human rights — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The United States had not yet entered World War II, which was raging in Europe (Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was in December 1941), and Roosevelt wanted to ignite concern about the real threat of war.

Rockwell wrestled with translating Roosevelt's lofty and broad concepts into visually accessible images but finally stopped overthinking and did what he did best: created scenes with a clear message and emotional punch.

Rockwell claimed that Freedom From Want, which he also called "the turkey from Thanksgiving," was the easiest of the four. The composition is unusual, with the table, not the people, occupying the central space and taking up more than half of the canvas. Around it, a multigenerational family gathers as the grandmother sets a turkey down and the grandfather stands behind, ready to carve it. Rockwell always sweated the details. The white tablecloth has creases in it indicating it was ironed, folded and stored until a special occasion like this one. Painting white on white is always a technical challenge, but Rockwell did it, putting a white casserole on the white cloth. The table isn't overflowing with food; besides the turkey and covered casserole, there are small dishes with celery and cranberry sauce. The beverage is water. The painting is about freedom from want, not freedom for excess, and the idea of the joy in sharing what we have with those we love.

He originally intended to donate the four paintings to the government to be used for inspirational posters, but miscommunication among several agencies stymied that plan. Instead, the Saturday Evening Post ran them as covers for four consecutive weeks. Freedom From Want was published on March 6, 1943, at the height of World War II. An immediate and huge demand for reprints ensued, and the original paintings were sent on a fundraising tour for war bonds that raised $132 million.

Popular versus critical opinion

From the beginning of his national fame, Rockwell was derided by art critics, referred to as an illustrator rather than a painter. He described himself as an illustrator and consciously created tableaux that would appeal to a large audience.

Rockwell was both a realist and regionalist artist at a time when modernism was in its ascendancy. When he created Freedom From Want, cubism had been solidly established, Marcel Duchamp had exhibited a urinal and declared it art, and Pablo Picasso had painted Guernica as his war protest.

Understandable, then, that as beloved as he was by a wide swath of America, the art world found him sentimental and out of touch. Which was unfair at the time since he was not promoting himself as a fine artist.

Rockwell bequeathed his considerable collection of paintings and drawings to a custodianship that would become the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., where he had lived since 1953. Freedom From Want is part of its permanent collection.

Touring exhibitions beginning in the 1990s launched a reassessment of his work. There were still those who found him banal (or worse), but influential advocates also weighed in, including New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who praised his artistry.

A personal assessment

I never gave much thought to Norman Rockwell until a few years ago when the Orlando Museum of Art had a large exhibition of his paintings and drawings. Seeing the originals instead of the slick magazine covers gave me a deep appreciation for his technical ability.

There is something more. As conventional as Rockwell's narratives seem, many have subtle juxtapositions of opposite types who might have been at odds but come together over simple human kindness or a sense of moral imperative. He makes his points without irony, which would be near impossible today. Many contemporary artists who have made figurative art owe a big debt to him. Take a look online at paintings by big-deal contemporary artist John Currin, for instance, who embraces and then upends the Rockwell model.

No one has ever bested him in his depictions of everyday life elevated to revelatory or defining moments. Rockwell was an original.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.