Norman Rockwell Depicted an Idealized Version of American Thanksgiving

By Helen Breen

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfect place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be, and so painted only the ideal aspects of it.”

So wrote Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), American painter extraordinaire, reflecting back on his life’s work. Recognized for his artistic talents very young, he received his initial commission at age 17. By his early 20s, he was designing the first of 321 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a relationship that would last for 47 years.

In the late 30s the Rockwells settled in Arlington, Vermont, a perfect perch from which Norman observed the simple charms of small town life, and recreated them in his illustrations. The humor and folksy appeal of these images were dismissed by many critics as “overly sweet” tending towards “an idealistic or sentimentalized portrayal of American life.” Yet the popularity of his drawings for books and catalogs, Boy Scout calendars, and advertisement for products like Coca-Cola, assured his financial success and his popularity with a majority of Americans.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell in his Stockbridge, MA studio


Inspired by President Roosevelt during WWII, the artist created his Four Freedoms series which took seven months to complete. They include Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear. The iconic paintings toured the United States in 1943, generating over $130 million for War Bonds. Rockwell also contributed scores of other works supportive of the war effort throughout the conflict.

In the early 50s, Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His mature work began to focus more “on themes concerning poverty, race, and the Vietnam War.” One year before his death in 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. The President concluded: “His vivid and affectionate portraits of our country and ourselves have become a beloved part of the American tradition.”

In 1973 the artist established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy that became the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. His studio and its content were added to the property and are visited by thousands every year.

The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943


In 1942 Rockwell used his own Vermont dining room as backdrop for this famous painting. He enlisted family members and neighbors as models including his cook Mrs. Thaddeus Wheaton who is serving the turkey. Rockwell was concerned that the size of the bird suggested an “abundance” not experienced by everyone throughout the country during World War II. Nevertheless, the painting enjoyed tremendous popularity that has endured through the years.

The work also showcases Rockwell artistic talents. One critic described the table setting as “one of the most ambitious plays of white-against-white since Whistler.” Regarding the turkey, Rockwell later quipped, “Our cook cooked it, I painted it and we ate it. That was one of the few times I’ve ever eaten the model.”

The Country Gentleman, August 25, 1917


City slicker Reginald Claude Ritzhugh “repeatedly fell victim to the antics of his country cousins and their dog” in a series Rockwell did for The Country Gentleman between 1917 and 1922.

Norman Rockwell, Mother and son peeling potatoes

The Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1945


Norman Rockwell traveled to Maine to find the most “homelike kitchen” as the backdrop for this painting. The table was not “artfully arranged, but looks like it might for a big Thanksgiving meal in preparation.” After doing preliminary sketches in Maine, he returned home to Vermont to search for his models. The artist chose a neighbor Dick Hagelberg, a bombardier with 65 missions over Germany. On Thanksgiving Day 1945, Dick is “happy pulling K. P. duty with his real-life mother.”


Thanksgiving Blues, Norman Rockwell

The Saturday Evening Post, November 28, 1942

“Thanksgiving Day Blues” November 1942. Rockwell always had sympathy for the “little guy” behind the scenes.

Categories: People

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