Freedom from Want
— Norman Rockwell, 1943, oil on canvas
Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I'll Be Home for Christmas, is the third series. It was published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. All of the people in the picture were friends and family of Rockwell in Arlington, Vermont, who were photographed individually and painted into the scene. The work depicts a group of people gathered around a dinner table for a holiday meal. Having been partially created on Thanksgiving Day to depict the celebration, it has become an iconic representation of the Thanksgiving holiday and family holiday gatherings in general. The Post published Freedom from Want with a corresponding essay by Carlos Bulosan as part of the Four Freedoms series. Despite many who endured sociopolitical hardships abroad, Bulosan's essay spoke on behalf of those enduring the socioeconomic hardships domestically, and it thrust him into prominence.
The painting shows an aproned matriarch presenting a roasted turkey to a family of several generations, in Rockwell's idealistic presentation of family values. The patriarch looks on with fondness and approval from the head of the table, which is the central element of the painting. Its creased tablecloth shows that this is a special occasion for "sharing what we have with those we love", according to Lennie Bennett. The table has a bowl of fruit, celery, pickles, and what appears to be cranberry sauce. There is a covered silver serving dish that would traditionally hold potatoes, according to Richard Halpern, but Bennett describes this as a covered casserole dish. The servings are less prominent than the presentation of white linen, white plates and water-filled glasses. The people in the painting are not yet eating, and the painting contrasts the empty plates and vacant space in their midst with images of overabundance.
Rockwell was concerned that Freedom from Want did not match Bulosan's text. In mid-November of 1942, Hibbs wrote Rockwell pleading that he not scrap his third work to start over. Hibbs alleviated Rockwell's thematic concern; he explained that the illustrations only needed to address the same topic rather than be in unison. Hibbs pressured Rockwell into completing his work by warning him that the magazine was on the verge of being compelled by the government to place restrictions on four-color printing, so Rockwell had better get the work published before relegation to halftone printing.
As in the previous paintings, Rockwell used his Arlington, Virginia neighbors as models for the portraits. In Freedom from Want, he used his living room for the setting and relied on neighbors for advice, critical commentary, and their service as his models. For Freedom from Want, Rockwell photographed his cook as she presented the turkey on Thanksgiving Day 1942. He said that he painted the turkey on that day and that, unlike Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship, this painting was not difficult to execute. Rockwell's wife Mary is in this painting, and the family cook, Mrs. Thaddeus Wheaton, is serving the turkey, which the Rockwell family ate that day. The nine adults and two children depicted were photographed in Rockwell's studio and painted into the scene later. The models are (clockwise from Wheaton) Lester Brush, Florence Lindsey, Rockwell's mother Nancy, Jim Martin (who appeared in all four paintings in the series), Mr. Wheaton, Mary Rockwell, Charles Lindsey, and the Hoisington children. Shirley Hoisington, the girl at the end of the table, was six at the time.
Freedom from Want is considered one of Rockwell's finest works. Of the four paintings in the Four Freedoms, it is the one most often seen in art books with critical review and commentary. Although all were intended to promote patriotism in a time of war, Freedom from Want became a symbol of "family togetherness, peace, and plenty", according to Linda Rosenkrantz, who compares it to "a 'Hallmark' Christmas". Embodying nostalgia for an enduring American theme of holiday celebration, the painting is not exclusively associated with Thanksgiving, and is sometimes known as I'll Be Home for Christmas. The abundance and unity it shows were the idyllic hope of a post-war world, and the image has been reproduced in various formats.
According to author Amy Dempsey, during the Cold War, Rockwell's images affirmed traditional American values, depicting Americans as prosperous and free. Rockwell's work came to be categorized within art movements and styles such as Regionalism and American scene painting. Rockwell's work sometimes displays an idealized vision of America's rural and agricultural past. Rockwell summed up his own idealism: "I paint life as I would like it to be."
Despite Rockwell's general optimism, he had misgivings about having depicted such a large turkey when much of Europe was "starving, overrun [and] displaced" as World War II raged. Rockwell noted that this painting was not popular in Europe: "The Europeans sort of resented it because it wasn't freedom from want, it was overabundance, the table was so loaded down with food." Outside the United States, this overabundance was the common perception. However, Richard Halpern says the painting not only displays overabundance of food, but also of "family, conviviality, and security", and opines that "overabundance rather than mere sufficiency is the true answer to want." He parallels the emotional nourishment provided by the image to that of the food nourishment that it depicts, remarking that the picture is noticeably inviting. However, by depicting the table with nothing but empty plates and white dishes on white linen, Rockwell may have been invoking the Puritan origins of the Thanksgiving holiday.
To art critic Robert Hughes, the painting represents the theme of family continuity, virtue, homeliness, and abundance without extravagance in a Puritan tone, as confirmed by the modest beverage choice of water. Historian Lizabeth Cohen says that by depicting this freedom as a celebration in the private family home rather than a worker with a job or a government protecting the hungry and homeless, Rockwell suggests that ensuring this freedom was not as much a government responsibility as something born from participation in the mass consumer economy.
One of the notable and artistically challenging elements of the image is Rockwell's use of white-on-white: white plates sitting on a white tablecloth. Art critic Deborah Solomon describes this as "one of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1". Solomon further describes the work as "a new level of descriptive realism. Yet, the painting doesn't feel congested or fussy; it is open and airy in the center. Extensive passages of white paint nicely frame the individual faces."
Jim Martin, positioned in the lower right, gives a coy and perhaps mischievous glance back at the viewer. He is a microcosm of the entire scene in which no one appears to be giving thanks in a traditional manner of a Thanksgiving dinner. Solomon finds it a departure from previous depictions of Thanksgiving in that the participants do not lower their heads or raise their hands in the traditional poses of prayer. She sees it as an example of treating American traditions in both sanctified and casual ways. Theologian David Brown sees gratitude as implicit in the painting, while Kenneth Bendiner writes that Rockwell was mindful of the Last Supper and that the painting's perspective echoes its rendition by Tintoretto.