This is the best-known image of Thanksgiving.
Norman Rockwell, the painter and illustrator who created cover art for the Saturday Evening Post for forty years, painted this as part of a series entitled Four Freedoms that promoted war bonds during World War II. Rockwell’s inspiration for the series came from a speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt wherein he spoke about four universal rights, one of which is Freedom from Want (the others are Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, and Freedom from Fear).
In this iconic image, we see an American ideal. The matriarch and patriarch of a large, happy family places a beautiful roasted turkey on a dining table appointed with the family’s best china. People smile at one another with excitement; “Grandma’s done it again!” A man in the lower right corner looks out at us. He may be inviting us to join them, or maybe we already have. Maybe we are part of the family.
It is surprising that neither this image, nor any others by Rockwell, appear in the major art history survey textbooks. The image is creative and the execution is skillful.
Is this not art?
To answer this question, I spoke to David Soman, professional author and illustrator of the successful Ladybug Girl children’s book series, which he co-authors with his wife, Jacky Davis. David also teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
TAM: Why do you think this illustration is not part of the western canon of fine art?
DS: I don’t really think that illustration in general has been left out of the canon of western art. The fact that illustration can be perceived as less than art is, I think, more a by-product of the war between representational and abstract art than it is about the difference between the fine arts and illustration themselves.
Additionally, I think there is also some of the “high art” vs. “low art” thinking involved, and the world of gallery painting had always held itself above the work that was being published in pulp/popular magazines and the like.
The Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, however, along with the veneration now given to street and graffiti artists, seem to me some of the many signs that this two-tiered view of art seems to be on its way out. In galleries in New York today, as well as magazines such as Juxtaposz, the differences between fine art and illustration are so blurred as to be indistinguishable.
TAM: Do you think that the commercial aspect of illustration is what sets it apart from fine art at times?
DS: If illustration is art that is paid for ahead of time (subject to certain stipulations) as opposed to fine art (paid for after the fact, with different kind of stipulations), than many of the greatest masterpieces of European are illustrations: Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, and Velasquez’s Las Meninas, just to name three. But historically, there does seem to be a bias against the idea of doing art commercially (at least in some circles), but again to draw a big difference between someone like Norman Rockwell being hired to conceive and execute a Saturday Evening Post cover, and Marc Chagall being commissioned to decorate Lincoln Center seems to me to be splitting hairs.
But none of this has anything to do with whether or not any given painting is good art or bad art…
TAM: Did you see the Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum?
DS: I did. As a painter and illustrator myself, I enjoyed seeing the paintings in person and getting a chance to see what a master craftsman, what a good technical painter Rockwell really was. To an art nerd like me, to really see the brush strokes in his painting was really exciting.
TAM: What do you think about this particular painting?
DS: Funny to say, that as much as I like Norman Rockwell, and I like him a lot, I’ve never particularly cared for this painting. There’s something just a little flat, a little one note about it for my taste. Of course, it’s incredibly well painted, but it lacks the two aspects of Rockwell’s work that I like most: his humor and his story telling. In the Rockwell illustrations that I most respond to, he tells the story of a whole event, and nails the emotions that go with it, usually with a bit of a warm, sly (and at times corny) teasing, and with an incredible economy. In this painting there is no human story to go with the meal, and despite the smiles all around, it isn’t a fun picture (Grandma looks a little grim, to me). I get that he was trying to sell war bonds, and probably during the Second World War the paintings simple steadfastness was very heartening, but for me at least, the image has not aged well. Also, what’s up with the celery sticks?
TAM: This is not my favorite Rockwell painting either because it is a little simplistic, but I like to see it this time of year as much as I like to hear Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
So, what is your favorite Rockwell painting?
DS: That’s almost an impossible question for me to answer; what I like changes over time. I’ve found that paintings I’ve marked down in one of my art books for class discussion with my students one semester, often have no interest for me the following year. Our response to any given painting, at any given time changes as we change; the relationship between the viewer and the work is a living one (that’s what makes it so exciting, don’t you think?). That said, there are many that pop into mind: Breaking Home Ties – a father and son waiting by the side of a car for the kid to head off to college, The Runaway – a little boy run away at a soda fountain next to a police officer, Outside The Principal’s Office – a smiling girl with a black eye. But honestly, these are really just random stabs in the dark, and I’m sure if I sat down with a Rockwell book, I would choose completely different images.
TAM: Thank you, David. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
Books about Norman Rockwell
The Ladybug Girl series by Jacky Davis and David Soman