I don’t mean the story behind the print, the story of how Rockwell was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s annual address to Congress in 1941, when FDR outlined four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. And I don’t mean how Rockwell, in his own words, wanted to “express the ideas (of Roosevelt’s proclamation) in simple everyday scenes… in terms everyone can understand.”
I don’t even want to reflect too much on how “Freedom from Want,” which has become as much a Thanksgiving Day staple as butternut squash and mashed potatoes, was actually first published in Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1943. These are fine stories, but they’re stories for another time.
No, I want to talk about the story Rockwell is trying to tell in the print itself. Now, I am not pretending to be a Rockwell expert (although, thanks to my mom, I am a big fan). But I do have my own interpretation about what’s going on in this classic illustration. And it all starts with that humongous turkey right smack in the center.
This turkey is so ridiculously huge, it could probably feed fifty. You can’t miss it… but just in case you do, Rockwell has a few signposts to direct you to it: check out all the ovals in the picture—dishes and the tops of the glasses—all of which lead your eye to the Incredible Hulk of a turkey at the center.
Obviously, Rockwell did not paint this Big Bird by accident. Its size is exaggerated, and it’s meant to be. It all comes back to the print’s title: in terms of food, this family does not have to “want” anything. They have everything they need—and then some.
Two small details reinforce this point. First, the grandfather’s hand is almost vulture-like. To me, this detail suggests that, as the family’s patriarch, he has worked hard all of his life for this very reason—to provide his family with food. (And if the smile on his face is any indication, he knows his hard work has been worth it.) Secondly, the fruit on the table looks gold while the celery almost has a silver-ish tint; this underscores that this food is valuable.
But here’s the thing: no one at the table is even paying attention to the turkey. Instead, they’re all talking to and laughing with each other. Now, on the one hand, that may seem a little ungrateful on their part: after all, Grandma’s slaved all day to prepare this meal (not to mention the years Grandpa toiled away, which resulted in his vulture-hand), and no one even cares?? But I try to look at the print a little more optimistically.
The grandparents, I think, aren’t bothered that their children and grandchildren don’t care about the food. In fact, they’re thrilled; they worked so hard all their lives so their family doesn’t have to care. Moreover, by laughing and smiling, the family members are showing how much they enjoy each other, how much they value this family. And that’s the big reason why this family has “freedom from want”: they have each other.
One final detail I’ve always enjoyed: the man in the bottom right corner, the one looking out at the audience. I always thought that guy was saying to us, the good folks sitting at home, “Hey, come on in. Join the party.” And why not? There’s obviously enough turkey to go around.