Friday, December 18, 2009

Freedom from Want--Thanksgiving Hook (High School Art Criticism Mini-Lesson)

Just before the Thanksgiving Holiday, I used these images of "Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell as prompts for an art criticism mini-lesson. I simply projected them, provided the following information for note-taking and asked students to work individually or in small groups to answer two questions before we discussed them as a class. I found it to be a simple, quick and effective art criticism "hook," and hope you do too.

Background Information:

Norman Percevel Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) was a 20th century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States, where Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life scenarios he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over more than four decades.

His last painting for the Post was published in 1963, marking the end of a publishing relationship that had included 322 cover paintings. He spent the next 10 years painting for Look magazine, where his work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty and space exploration.
Many contemporary artists consider his work trite or banal and refer to him as an "illustrator" rather than an "artist" or "painter," as an insult. However, Rockwell referred to himself as an illustrator.

Normal Rockwell created images illustrating The Four Freedoms first published in The Saturday Evening Post. The Office of War Information later issued the series as posters as an incentive for War bond purchasers. Many of these posters are still sold today.

The Four Freedoms are goals famously articulated by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urged by wife Eleanor Roosevelt and friend Jon Run, on January 6, 1941. In an address also known as the Four Freedoms speech, FDR proposed four points as fundamental freedoms humans "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy:

1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of religion
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear
Source: Wikipedia

1) What are all the ways in which Rockwell communicated the concept of "Freedom from Want" in this image?
Make sure students notice details about the room (sparkling appearance, wall paper, artwork, etc.), as well as light quality, the fresh-scrubbed appearance of the family members along with their clothing and their expressions, grand parents presiding, the china/crystal, the crudite, etc. They should also notice that the table isn't laden with food, yet the turkey is enormous.

2) What pictorial strategies did Rockwell use to make us feel like we are a guest who has just walked in to join the feast?
Students should notice that the way the table is cropped makes it appear to extend into our space and that the way the male in the bottom right corner is turned to look makes it seem as though he heard us walk in and has turned to welcome us.


  1. I applaud the manner in which you offer your students the opportunity to think 'outside the box' by looking at visual history.

    This artist and his imagery certainly holds a place within the minds of those of us who lived with them growing up. I wonder how germain a scene, such as this, feels for students today.

    I for one don't necessarily consider Rockwell a player in 'art history' yet look at how much influence his images had on us collectively and I immediately stand corrected!

    Thanks for giving your students, and us, a new window for viewing this iconic scene.

  2. "Visual history" is, I think, such an appropriate term, especially for those who question Rockwell's contributions as an "artist" vs. an "illustrator." He called himself the latter, by the way.

    I didn't have students address how close or far this image was from their own celebrations, as I feared it might be painful for some. But it could be a really rich discussion. It might be fun to offer a selection of all kinds of reproductions of artists' paintings on postcards (even Francis Bacon, Pollock, etc.) with the prompt, "If Rockwell's scene doesn't resemble your family's Thanksgiving, choose an artwork that does and write a journal entry that explain the connection to share with the class."

    Thanks for helping ME think "outside the box" in terms of extensions.

  3. I used some of Rockwell's illustrations for a unit i did for Nat'l Bds. where I used the cultural context of different works of art and students tried to find as many different clues or ideas in each of the works of art. I used many others as well. The finale was to choose one of a few that I displayed on the board and modernize it to fit todays culture that my students perceive themselves to fit into. this was a really fun lesson; it led to some great work. An example...Grandma Moses "hanging out laundry" was modernized to a laundrymatt...where people of different groups were sitting around waiting on their clothes.....the family dinner...freedom from want...became a fast food meal with electronics abound. I have just discovered your blog and am absolutely thrilled with it. I have taught for 25 years; the majority having been in HS art. I have a BFA in painting; teaching credentials from the state of NC; MA.Ed. in art education and national certification. I am always looking for something new and better. Love your blog. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed right now with some immature and disinterested freshmen students. Any pointers on how to engage these learners when they are more interested in socializing and wreaking havoc in my art room?


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