Thanksgiving: A look back at Norman Rockwell's iconic illustration 'Freedom From Want'

Deborah Solomon's book 'American Mirror' gives a new perspective to one of Rockwell's most famous paintings.

Deborah Solomon is the author of 'American Mirror.'

Thanks to “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” Deborah Solomon’s new book about one of America’s most popular artists, readers are getting a fresh look at an enduring Thanksgiving image: Rockwell’s celebrated holiday illustration “Freedom From Want.”

During World War II, Rockwell, who was best known for his homespun cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, conceived a series of paintings to honor President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech outlining the four freedoms essential to any civil society: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

In Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” the viewer is taken “into the dining room of a comfortable American home on Thanksgiving Day, and you can tell from the light coming through sheer curtains that it is still mid-afternoon,” Solomon tells readers. "The guests are seated at a long table, and no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the white-haired grandma solemnly carrying it – do they even know she is there?”

The grandmother in the painting was actually the Rockwell family’s cook, according to Solomon. The nine adults and two children who appear in the portrait were photographed in Rockwell’s studio and later painted into their various places at the dinner table.

Rockwell later had reservations about the painting, feeling that he made the turkey too big, Solomon reports. Some critics, especially those outside America, saw the picture as a perfect if unintentional expression of American excess. But Solomon notes that the casual chatter around the table points hopefully to a nation in which citizens enjoy traditions but aren’t constrained by them. The wry face staring directly at the viewer from the corner of the picture hints that Americans don’t take themselves too seriously.

Viewers can see “Freedom from Want” online at the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rockwell (1894-1978) has been widely dismissed for his idealized images of American life, but “Freedom from Want” is a reminder that he was a subtler artist than his reputation suggests. 

All the more reason, as Americans gather around their own holiday tables today, to give thanks for Norman Rockwell.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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