Thanksgiving and Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want”

Published 7:22 am Wednesday, November 23, 2016

In January 1941, against a backdrop of world war, “new order” and fascist dictatorships, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a celebrated State of the Union address in which he verbalized four freedoms worth fighting for — freedom of speech, of worship, from fear and from want.

Two years later, The Saturday Evening Post published essays on each of these freedoms, and their resident artist, Norman Rockwell, contributed accompanying paintings. One of the paintings, “Freedom from Want,” you would probably know by sight, if not by title. For more than seven decades it has reigned supreme as the image Americans most associate with the Thanksgiving holiday.

(Need me to paint you a picture? It’s the one where the dining room table is covered by a white table cloth and set with the good silver, and Grandpa is at the head of it with carving tools in hand. Grandma, in her apron, is shown bringing the turkey to its rightful place while the rest of the family leans in around the table, smiling. Remember it now?)

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Rockwell (1894-1978) wrote that his four freedoms assignments were “worth everything that I can give them and more.” It was a bold undertaking for the artist, this attempting to communicate the abstract notion of freedom on canvas, and Rockwell is said to have fussed greatly over the Thanksgiving scene in particular. His concern was that it might convey overabundance, rather than the intended freedom from want – thus the water in the glasses and absence of nearly everything else that will be on our menus tomorrow.

Though destined to become an enduring national symbol, “Freedom from Want” was never a Saturday Evening Post cover. It appeared inside the magazine on March 6, 1943, and then eventually toured the United States as part of an exhibition that raised more than $130 million for the war effort through the sale of war bonds. The original oil on canvas painting now hangs in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Art critics of Rockwell’s day made little of his work, preferring other emerging forms over his definitive pictures of Americana. The New Yorker, however, reported that Rockwell’s four freedoms “were received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art.”

Today’s viewers continue to appreciate Rockwell’s skills (check out the reflection of the porcelain plate), but these days their eyes may linger longer on the family depicted — intact, multi-generational, harmonious. Even so, it is just that — a depiction. Rockwell himself, thrice married and far removed from his Episcopal choir boy days, once admitted, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” That’s why all the individual portraits were posed, including that of Mrs. Thaddeus Wheaton, the Rockwell family cook who served as the model for the grandmother serving the turkey.

“She cooked it, I painted it and we ate it,” the artist later summarized.

That’s OK. Few homes can live up to an idealized holiday gathering involving simultaneous smiles, starched aprons and plated celery stalks. I doubt I’ll be tucking any parsley around our turkey platter, either. 

The point is, Rockwell’s famous painting reminds us that the real joy at any Thanksgiving table isn’t the stuff on it, but the people around it, and a close look at “Freedom from Want” might just leave you hungering for something more this year.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at