It was Thanksgiving Day, 1942, and the dinner table at Norman’s house was set for the holiday feast. The good china. Polished silverware. White tablecloth. The fancy salt and pepper shakers. The silver serving dish. Mrs. Wheaton, the family cook, served the turkey. It was a healthy-sized gobbler, too. Fortunately, the war-imposed rationing did not apply to poultry, as it did to sugar and, very shortly, meat and butter.
Norman’s wife, Mary, was there, of course. And his mother, Nancy. Several of Norman and Mary’s neighbours in Arlington, Vermont would eventually be seen at the table. Norman took lots of photographs of the Thanksgiving table that day, and he would take several more of his friends who appeared at that table.
It doesn’t sound too different from the Thanksgiving dinner that you and your family are enjoying to-day, does it? Maybe even a bit understated. But, in fact, that get-together at Norman’s home marked the most well-known Thanksgiving dinner since the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621.
Despite appearances, that particular holiday dinner wasn’t typical. For one thing, it was a work day for Norman. He had to complete a job assignment handed to him back in June.
That was kind of Norman’s fault, though. Nearly two years earlier, President Roosevelt had delivered his State of the Union address at a time when Nazi Germany occupied much of Europe and the prospect of a threat to America’s security nestled uncomfortably in the back of everyone’s mind. After the United States was drawn into World War II on 07 December 1941, Norman, in addition to his regular work, volunteered his services to the war effort. But it wasn’t until June of this year that an inspiration, using F.D.R.’s speech as the basis, struck him.
Norman spent three days sketching out his ideas. Then he travelled to Washington and spoke to his contacts in the War Department, offering to provide the finished product free of charge. Norman was pointed toward the Office of War Information, but when he approached O.W.I. officials with his idea, he was patted on the head and told thanks, but no thanks.
On the way home, Norman made a side-trip to the offices of The Saturday Evening Post, a publication for which he had done a considerable amount of work. There he met with new Post editor Benjamin Hibbs. Whether it was a calculated move on Norman’s part or he just happened to bring up his idea, Hibbs liked it and commissioned Norman to make it so.
It began, as always, with photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. One part of Norman’s concept led to him photographing that Thanksgiving dinner, with Mary and his mother sitting at the table, while Mrs. Wheaton served the turkey they would eat that day. Later, he also took pictures of friends and neighbours Lester Brush, Charles and Florence Lindsay, Jim Martin, Dan Walsh, and the Hoisington children, Bill, age twelve, and Shirley, age six. They hadn’t been at Norman and Mary’s dinner table at the time, but they would be. Even Mrs. Wheaton’s husband, Thaddeus, got into the act.
Ben Hibbs planned for Norman’s work to accompany a series of articles, to be published over four consecutive weekly issues. After they finally saw print, 20 February through 13 March 1943, nobody remembered the articles, but everybody remembered the art. Art which conveyed in a single glance what it took the article-writers several thousand words to describe: the essential liberties which were the legacy of every American man, woman, and child.
For Norman had converted and combined the photographs he had taken into a series of four paintings, paintings which reflected the very heart of America, the inalienable principles we hold most dear. At the time, across a country embroiled in war, those four paintings were met with national acclaim. There’s a misconception that the paintings were used as covers of The Saturday Evening Post. That’s probably because Norman had been doing covers for the magazine for over twenty-five years. He was well known enough in the art world and, certainly, among devout Post readers.
But it was these four paintings that made a household name out of Norman . . . Rockwell.
Norman Rockwell, that time-honoured illustrator of Americana, began his career at the age of eighteen, as a staff artist for the Boy Scouts of America publication Boys’ Life. He would do regular illustrations for the Boy Scouts over the next sixty-four years. In 1916, he drew the first of what would be a total of 323 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s success with The Post led to steady work producing cover art for a dozen other popular publications of the day.
At America’s entry into World War II, Rockwell began emphasising the human element of the war in his illustrations. His covers promoted war bonds, encouraged enlistment, highlighted women in the work force, and reminded Americans not in uniform of their need to do their part. He created an “everyman” character, Willie Gillis, who appeared on eleven covers of The Saturday Evening Post, tracking him through his military service, from induction to discharge. Here, and in his wartime work in general, Rockwell employed themes of patriotism, duty, sacrifice, longing, love, and community. Sometimes with a bit a whimsy, but always with deep sentimentality.
But it was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in January, 1941, that gave Rockwell his greatest inspiration. In his speech to Congress, Roosevelt spoke of America’s belief in individual liberties and how such freedoms should extend to all mankind in a postwar world, after the defeat of the Axis.
The first is freedom of speech and expression---everywhere in the world. The second is the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way---everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want---which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants---everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear---which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point, and in such a thorough fashion, that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor---anywhere in the world.
It became known as Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, and a year later, Norman Rockwell realised how depicting these universal rights would viscerally remind Americans of their heritage and of what was at stake, if the dictators on the other side of the world had their way.
From the sketches he had prepared, Rockwell completed four paintings. The first three---Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship and Freedom from Fear---have largely receded in our collective memory.
But the last one has become the icon of an American holiday. This American holiday. It’s the one that everybody knows, though maybe not by its proper title---Freedom from Want.
It’s been over three-quarters of a century since Norman Rockwell painted that scene, drawn from an amalgamation of the photos he took that Thanksgiving in 1942 and those of his neighbours who served as models. Yet, despite the passing decades, it stands as the classic representation of the holiday. On one canvas, Rockwell captured all of the sentiment of the occasion, its warmth and joy and celebration of family. In every home, it’s what this day is. Or, at least, what we long for.
Norman Rockwell’s art was not without its healthy share of detractors. But seldom was the criticism of the artist’s skill. Rather, Rockwell’s illustrations were taken to task for the nature of his subjects. Rockwell’s view of life, the critics pronounced, was a fake, a rose-coloured view of a quaint, small-town America that never existed.
To this, Rockwell responded unapologetically, “I paint life as I would like it to be.”
* * * * *
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, and many more of them!
I have so many childhood memories of Norman Rockwell. My grandmother always had huge coffee table books that I would leaf through while I was visiting. When I was a kid, I remember we spent a long time studying him.
He is definitely a bright spot that I am thankful for! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well, Commander Benson, as well as everyone here at Captain Comics!
Happy Thanksgiving, to you and yours, Commander! Another great one!
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone here and their families! Joy and health to you all!
Happy Thanksgiving Commander, and thanks for another great article. And a Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!
I figured almost at once where you were going with this, but so what. Still a great story.
There was more to Rockwell than some of his critics admit. I'm partial to one blogger's description of Captain America as "Weaponized Norman Rockwell — the Norman Rockwell who painted Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter, and little black girls being escorted to desegregated schools by Federal marshals.”
And happy thanksgiving everyone.
Commander, Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for your post.
Another worthy addition to the growing roster of holiday Deck Log Entries!
I don’t think I ever admitted how much “mileage” I continue to get out of 2015’s Deck Log Entry #186. It comes up (or I can make it come up) at Thanksgiving, when watching Holiday Inn and when watching the Three Stooges. (I’m holding 2016’s #194 in reserve should I ever find myself having Thanksgiving with my nephew.) I can see myself trotting out this year’s little gem of “cocktail party knowledge” from time to time, as well. Me, I’m thankful for Commander Benson’s Deck Logs.