Chris Newbound: Norman Rockwell painting finds hope and spareness in Thanksgiving

Thursday November 22, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Nor man Rockwell characterized his own work as an idealized version of Amer ican life. He and others would often say that his images represented the way he wanted life to be, not necessarily the way life was. And there may be no better example of this take on things than Rock well’s "Free dom of Want," a now iconic image of a family and friends gathered all together for a holiday meal, which is part of the permanent collection at the Norman Rock well Museum.

The "Freedom of Want" painting was originally part of a quartet of works in spired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "Four Free doms" speech (his State of the Union address) in January 1941. This particular painting is the Paul Mc Cartney of the group: the sunniest, and arguably the most popular of the foursome. The other three works -- "Free dom of Speech," "Free dom of Fear" and "Free dom to Wor ship" -- are decidedly more somber, more Lennon than McCartney.

While one could argue that all of Rockwell’s work shouts America, "Freedom of Want" (also thought of as the "Thanks giving painting" and the painting of "Abun dance") may have an even louder pitch: Here we have an aging couple, likely grandparents, standing at the head of their table, presenting a large turkey to a group of amiable seated family members -- daughters and sons, spouses, grandchildren and friends.

The day outside, coming through the window behind the couple, looks almost bright.

According to Thomas C. Daly, curator of education at the museum, Rockwell’s desire to express this vision of an idealized holiday family gathering, an idealized America for that matter, managed to override his worries that the painting might represent America in too fortunate a light. War-time food rationing in Europe was a recent memory for most in 1943, when the image first appeared inside the pages of The Saturday Evening Post.

But there is nothing very grand about the meal in front of them -- and especially not from our 21st-century vantage point. The turkey is good-sized, but the side dishes are modest and few; the group is drinking water, not wine or champagne. And while this may be the family’s best silver, it’s only brought out for a special occasion like this one. It’s certainly a nice spread, but not ostentatiously so.

Daly added that Rock well’s artistic process at this point in his career now included the use of still photographs. Though he still gathered models and ar ranged them as he saw fit, he had a photographer take hundreds of black-and-white photographs. Rock well would then arrange them, like a collage, until he was pleased with how the individual images made up the whole.

From there he would make a detailed sketch that would often closely resemble the final painting -- though alterations would sometimes occur from sketch to painting. (While some of these original sketches still survive, Daly said most ended up discarded -- Rockwell simply having no use for them once the painting had been completed.)

It’s been mistakenly re ported that Rockwell gathered all the models at once for "Freedom of Want," when, in fact, he staged only a partial get-together -- the "cast" never assembled all together.

Rockwell’s "mod els" were family members or local people he knew from the town he lived in, first Arlington, Vt., and then Stockbridge, Mas sachusetts. Here, the iconic grandmother presenting the turkey is an occasional cook of Rockwell’s family. The gray-haired woman sitting at the table is Rockwell’s real-life mother, Nancy; Rockwell’s wife at the time, Mary, sits across from his mother; and one of the boys sitting to the right of the grandfather is Buddy Edgerton, a next-door neighbor.

Given the overall simplicity of the scene, perhaps the abundance is more about the abundant good feeling among the group. Faces are smiling and people are leaning in toward each other to converse, an image of family happiness that many family reunions may have trouble living up to.

Here, no one is moping, or upset. No one appears to be left out -- in fact, the man at the bottom right hand corner of the painting almost seems to be inviting us to come join him there at the end of the table.

In this moment in time, this family is united, a soothing mantra applicable to almost all of Rockwell’s work. We are at home, in America, at peace with the world and with our family, about to be fed.

They are free of want because what more could anyone want?


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