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Freedom From Want was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Zina Parikh, Rising Freshman at Ithaca College
Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want is an iconic piece of both his career and of the time in which it was created. The oil on canvas painting, published in The Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943, depicts a happy family of many generations gathered around a large turkey which contrasts with the empty plates, little additional food on the table, and water filled glasses. The viewer can immediately conclude this occasion is Thanksgiving with the large turkey and large family. Rockwell also did not forget any detail – the creases on the table cloth disclose that the cloth is reserved for special occasions and left folded for much of the year. Moreover, viewers see a figure on the bottom right inviting them into this Thanksgiving dinner, who is Rockwell himself. Rockwell additionally displays a mastery of painting white on white, such as with white plates on the white cloth, a difficult task for artists. The gleaming white gives a sense of ethereal allurement, in sharp contrast with the bare table. The various contrasts in this piece might make viewers question what Rockwell’s message was in creating this piece and even question what “want” really means.
Rockwell created Freedom From Want in response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 Annual Message to Congress – now dubbed the State of the Union. Towards the end of his speech, President Roosevelt, in order to inspire involvement in World War II, outlined four basic freedoms, hoping that there would be a future in which all people enjoy the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He stated that these four freedoms are “attainable in our own time and generation,” words that Rockwell kept in mind by painting a family of many generations enjoying their dinner. Alone, President Roosevelt’s speech was not enough to entice people to help the war effort and end the popular policy of isolationism. This is where Rockwell comes into the picture, inspired by these four freedoms he sought to depict them. Rockwell brought his sketches to Washington D.C., but the Ordnance Department of the United States army did not have the resources to fund the project. On his way back to home to Vermont, Rockwell stopped by The Saturday Evening Post to show his sketches to editor Ben Hibbs. Hibbs welcomed Rockwell’s sketches and a few months later the paintings were published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 with accompanying essays, Freedom From Want specifically on March 6, 1943.
Paired with the Freedom from Want image in The Saturday Evening Post was an essay written by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino immigrant. He was the only essayist writing on the Four Freedoms to be of color and of foreign origin. This perspective shines compared to the other essays as Bulosan did not seem to describe a hyper-idealized version of the United States and world; Bulosan provided hope that as America approached freedom from want, it would expand this hope to other nations in worse conditions rather maintain a nationalist perspective. Additionally, Bulosan wrote, “we know they came because there is something in America that they needed, and which needed them,” which helps put into words what President Roosevelt meant in communicating all people deserve to be free from want. Freedom from want is not a world where ambitions and dreams are not welcome but a world where basic needs of food, water, shelter, and even happiness are met, as evident in Rockwell’s work. Rockwell brought President Roosevelt’s speech to life and made it relatable. The overall public was moved by the issues of The Saturday Evening Post and the pieces went on a national tour, making 133 million dollars in war bonds and stamps, roughly 2.2 million dollars today.
Despite the large scale appeal of these images, this dinner was exclusive to one demographic. This happy dinner represents white America, ignoring representations of people of color. This exclusion was unfortunately an outcome of Rockwell’s work environment, The Saturday Evening Post would only allow people of color to be illustrated if they were in subservient roles. In the Four Freedoms pieces, viewers only see white people represented due to this limitation. The exception being Freedom of Worship, where a black woman is included in the top left corner. In later works, after Rockwell left The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s works often showcase people of color such as in The Problem We All Live With featuring Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. Marshals as she integrates an all white school. Freedom of Worship is also reimagined in Golden Rule to be inclusive of all religions, not just Christian practices. The message of President Roosevelt’s speech and Rockwell’s piece still resonate with people today. Reimaginings of Freedom From Want are still prevalent in media from Modern Family to The Simpsons and from Deadpool 2 posters to a New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman. This is significant in understanding that the idea of being free from want, having the freedom to dream without worrying about basic needs, is timeless even if the illustrations to demonstrate this may be products of their times. Thus, Freedom From Want is not just a piece from World War II but a piece resonating a message to Americans today.
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Kimble, James J., and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms. New York, NY: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2018.
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“Rockwell’s “Golden Rule”.” Norman Rockwell Museum. September 07, 2017. Accessed August 02, 2018. https://www.nrm.org/2014/02/golden_rule/.
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. President Roosevelt’s 1941 Annual Message to Congress. January 6, 1941. “The 37 Best Parodies of Rockwell’s Freedom From Want.” If It’s Hip, It’s Here. Accessed August 02, 2018. http://www.ifitshipitshere.com/37-best-parodies-rockwells-freedom-want-aka-thanksgiving-dinner/.
Tucker, Abigail. “A 21st-Century Reimagining of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Four Freedoms.’ The Smithsonian. March 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/21st-century-reimagining-norman-rockwells-four-freedoms-180968086/.
Zhang, Christopher. “Pictures Worth More than Words.” Vanderbilt Historical Review I, no. III (2016): 24-31. Accessed July 12, 2018. http://vanderbilthistoricalreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Pictures-Worth-More-than-Words.pdf.