White on White: Hidden Race in Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Want’
On the 6th of March 1943, iconic painter and illustrator of American culture Norman Rockwell, published Freedom from Want or The Thanksgiving Picture in The Saturday Evening Post, one of over 300 covers he produced for the Indianapolis publication during his lifetime. It was the third of four oil paintings known as the Four Freedoms inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as the Four Freedoms (of Speech, of Worship, from Want and from Fear).
“When Roosevelt first took office, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Thus, from the start of his first administration, [he] placed a high priority on securing “freedom from want,” seeing it as essential to the nation’s long-term strength and future. Social Security, unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, the minimum wage, housing, stock market regulation, and federal deposit insurance for banks – these are but a few of the measures introduced through his New Deal programs (…) The Second World War, he believed, was caused in part by the currency disorders, mass unemployment, and economic desperation that had brought Hitler and Mussolini to power. As he stated when proposing an economic bill of rights “[T]rue individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” (Mary-Lea Cox, from ‘A Study Guide To The Four Freedoms’, 28 September 2005, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs). In essence, this was Roosevelt’s proclamation of democracy as a saviour from poverty and hunger, the only alternative to all political regimes seen as oppressive and limiting to the individual’s needs.
Norman Rockwell’s eponymous artwork is an ironic illustration of Roosevelt’s human rights declaration by providing a blissful snapshot of an all-white American middle class family settling down to a cosy Thanksgiving feast. The protagonists of the painting are all friends and family of the artist from Vermont, captured separately in photographs and subsequently rendered in hyper realist detail in oil paint, then assembled together for the final picture. From a technical viewpoint, Freedom from Want is a work which excels in the difficult mastery of white-on-white painting, with the background and foreground oversaturated in both opaque and transparent hues. The only looming dark presence in the centre is that of the family patriarch, and to a lesser degree, the matriarch, serving up a huge turkey to various generations of merry relatives. The focus is on the accurate depiction of delicately pale table linen and glassware and the plates of the sitters which are presented as empty. There is an overwhelming contrast between what is on offer (the juicy turkey) and the emptiness of the plates, as well as the glasses filled merely with clear water. One seems to be able to infer both the element of ‘want’ which is evident through the air of expectancy and empty plates, as well as that of ‘freedom’ from it, through the fat turkey which is about to be consumed.
The image became very popular at the time in the United States and has remained indicative of American bourgeois ‘good life’ and celebrating the national holiday of Thanksgiving. However, at the time of publication, it caused resentment in Europe where the masses were enduring the hardships of WWII. Another social aspect was pointed out by Frank Moore’s reinterpretation of Rockwell’s work in his 1994 Freedom to Share, in which he captures an ethnically diverse family, being served a turkey platter full of health care supplies. The focus has now shifted from the basic issues of wartime hunger to the complexities of a mixed population struggling with issues of social policy and healthcare in 1990s America.
Rockwell did not shy away from the issue of race in his paintings; it crops up periodically in important works such as The Problem We All Live With (1964), installed by Obama in the White House in 2011 as a reminder of past racial equality struggles. This painting shows U.S. marshals escorting Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African-American girl, into a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 as court-ordered integration was boycotted by an angry white community.
It can be said that Rockwell’s unassuming Freedom from Want delivered, on a subliminal level, particularly through the focus on white-on-white, a similar message. The latter had to remain hidden from public scrutiny, especially on the cover of a national magazine, at a time when racial matters were not a welcome topic. This painting too may have been “the product of an art that is beginning to have difficulty pushing, as Rockwell said of the culture at large, its “problems and prejudices under the rug,” the product of an art that is having trouble peddling the cherished fiction of a homogeneous, and implicitly white, America.(…) Rockwell’s white America is somehow blacker than it seems. That is, in these images, whiteness comes into being through blackness, it depends structurally on it.
It is as if, as [Toni] Morrison suggests in Playing in the Dark, whiteness alone is “mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable,” as if it cannot find meaning without the oblique picturing of its presumed opposite. Living beneath the surface of these works celebrating white communion is an eerily silenced echo of the other that cannot be visualized or, we might say, heard. However, “at some point the silence [becomes] an unbearable violence,” writes Morrison, so that the “buried subject” spills out of the void, calling attention to itself as something to reckon with. (…) a racialized unconscious might inform the work of white artists in these ways suggests (…) Defying the structural logic that would keep them firmly bound to other issues, these pictures open strangely out onto the buried subject of race.” (Jennifer A. Greenhill, ‘The View from Outside: Rockwell and Race in 1950’, American Art, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 2007).
Feature Image: Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964, Oil on canvas, 91 cm × 150 cm (36 in × 58 in), Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts