Exactly 75 years ago, in the middle of World War II, an iconic painting by American artist Norman Rockwell, called “Freedom from Want,” was published in a national magazine. Many tied it to Thanksgiving, some to Christmas. The spirit captured is worth remembering.
Hidden in plain sight was much of America’s greatness. Europeans and modern social critics suggest big family dinners at Thanksgiving – and Christmas – are insufficiently attentive to world “wants,” overlook necessary guilt for good fortune, miss the importance of self-flagellation.
That is not what the artist was aiming for in 1943, in his uplifting piece – and its three companions, “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” and “Freedom from Fear.” All four track Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union.
The art – and FDR’s speech – were not victory laps, condescension, or misstatement of reality. They were not a declaration of what life always is, but of what we may all hope life – at least in America – might be.
They were all four a celebration of shared hopes and dreams, the importance of independent thought and worship, courage to hold such prerogatives when under pressure; recognition of shared commitment to defend each other, common security; and ideals we strive to realize, love of family and country, satisfaction in hard work, fidelity to principle, shared prosperity – especially when buffeted from outside, or from within.
As the artist said, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” He was wishing a Happy Thanksgiving, and similarly Merry Christmas, to one and all. Then and now, “Freedom from Want” embodies an ideal – closeness of family with commitment and intent, shared time even under strain, an imagined moment of plenty, empty plates awaiting goodness, real joy in the moment.
That joy includes respect, order, and freedom of expression, a deliberate lightening of mood, intentional peace of heart – which happens when there is a shared desire for closeness between family members, neighbors and our nation.
Somewhat ironically, the joy Rockwell hoped to convey comes from gratitude for what is, and for what may be. A simple thing, just that. His works invite us to be our best, hope for the best, work for the best, and be grateful for the rest. We are asked to smile with those who smile, pause a while, not to complain, carp or divide, not to renounce, recriminate or dwell on what we do not have. He is trying to say – be glad for all that America offers, and make the most of it.
Hidden in that Thanksgiving dinner picture – in “Freedom from Want” – are many messages. Those who look will see them. They applied with great solemnity during World War II, when it was first painted. They apply with equal solemnity now, in a time of senselessly fractured families, neighbors and nation.
What are these hidden messages? First, be glad for others, enjoy their company, lift them and be lifted by them, take solace in timeless trust born of family and friendship. It is worth remembering on such occasions, and even between such occasions. Those in the picture are smiling, for a reason.
Second, honor those who serve, in that time those in uniform and our elders, in the picture, the matriarch who serves the big dinner bird. We are all beholden to someone, actually to many someones, and on such occasions we do well to remember our good fortune always depends on others. Gratitude, again.
Likewise, “Freedom from Want” turns on a shared commitment to work hard, and on commitments to participate, give, receive and serve – to be part of something bigger than ourselves. In the picture, one imagines as much listening as speaking, as much “thank you” as “please.” And of course, behind the whole event is still greater meaning – which we are left to guess at, Thanksgiving, Christmas?
As one art expert noted, the piece represents an aspiration for “family togetherness, peace and plenty.” All three were under strain in 1943, and all three seem under strain again today. Perhaps that is why this particular work – and its three siblings – are so appropriate to mention this Thanksgiving.
Americans were lucky, even as we rallied, rose and suffered in the height of World War II. Americans remain lucky today, headlines and broadcast differences notwithstanding. This Thanksgiving, take a moment to remember Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” and to recall that we are still lucky, every one of us, to be Americans.