The legendary art of Norman Rockwell can generally be described with just a single word, America. Although the last of his more than 4,000 original pieces was painted well over 40 years ago, his work is still widely displayed and enjoyed all across the landscape of this nation.
Norman Rockwell’s prolific career spanned more than 60 years. He was and still is dearly beloved by the American people. As Thanksgiving Day drew near in 1945, seventy five years ago this month, the 51 year old was facing a deadline and searching for live models to use in a cover painting for one of the nation’s most widely circulated weekly magazines, the Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell would eventually produce scores of iconic pieces for the Post over a period of several decades.
He was arguably at the height of his popularity and artistic prowess during the World War II years. Throughout that eventful era, many of his paintings reflected directly on the war effort, Americans fighting in the great conflict and those supporting them on the home front.
A looming deadline
Thanksgiving Day would fall on Thursday, Nov.. 22 in 1945. Rockwell needed to deliver his original Thanksgiving themed artwork by the deadline for the Saturday Evening Post edition that would hit the streets on Nov. 24.
Already, during the course of the war, he had composed at least three paintings that would eventually come to be associated with America’s annual Thanksgiving Day holiday. “Freedom From Want,” on the Post’s cover for its March 6, 1943, edition, depicts a matronly lady in a white apron, serving a huge turkey to her delighted family gathered around a festive table. It is widely recognizable today.
Later that year, during Thanksgiving week, Rockwell’s “Refugee Thanksgiving” would adorn the cover of the Post’s Nov. 27 edition. With hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting to free Italy from fascist tyranny at the time, this piece depicted an older Italian refugee girl, some might call her a young woman, bowing her head in prayer, among the ruins of war, over a meager meal. She is protected from the cold by the donated coat of an American GI, and is eating simple fare from a part of his mess kit. It is hard to view this painting for any length of time without feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the spirit of American generosity and kindness that it represents.
In 1944, Rockwell’s moving portrait of a U.S. soldier using his own mess kit to feed a little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old and likely in France not long after D-Day, was simply titled “The American Way.” It is supremely evocative, stirring the embers of a humble and grateful patriotism.
Searching for inspiration
But, as Thanksgiving Day 1945 approached, Rockwell’s promised cover art for the Post floundered. This one would mark a very special time in the history of our nation. World War II in Europe had ended in early May, with the surrender of Nazi Germany. The final curtain had fallen on the worldwide conflict with the official capitulation of Japan on Sept. 2.
With the advent of peace, over seven million Americans were now awaiting the exodus home from all across the globe, a journey that would return them to families and communities that many had not seen for years. Although a colossal logistical undertaking, over 2 million of that number had already crossed the seas and were now reunited with loved ones.
This is the story that Norman Rockwell wanted to portray in his Thanksgiving week 1945 Saturday Evening Post cover. But, how to do it? He first traveled to Maine from his nearby home in Vermont, seeking inspiration. Not discovering the spark he felt he needed there, Rockwell returned to his studio in Arlington, Vermont.
Back home, a young man named Richard (Dick) Hagelberg delivered milk to the artist’s house one morning, fresh milk from the nearby Hagelberg dairy farm. One look at Dick convinced Rockwell that he had found the subjects for the Thanksgiving painting he had been imagining for weeks. Dick and his 51-year-old mother Saara (Finish spelling) reluctantly agreed to pose for one hour, but only after they had been offered the hefty sum of $15 each.
Dick had recently arrived home, to the peace and serenity of the Vermont countryside, after surviving five years of service as a bombardier in the U.S. 9th Army Air Corps. Gazing at this veteran of an astounding 65 bombing missions over Europe, including support for the D-Day landings, Rockwell instantly knew that he had found his man.
The simple, but heartwarming piece of art that ensued has come to be known by several names. “Thanksgiving: Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes” describes the work to a tee. But, it is also known as “Home for Thanksgiving” and “Thanksgiving, 1945.” A smiling son in uniform and a beaming mother sit together quietly in the family kitchen, peeling potatoes in preparation for Thanksgiving Day.
Rockwell’s painting adorned the cover of the Nov. 24 edition of the Saturday Evening Post and struck a chord of joy deep in the heart of a war weary nation. Millions of American World War II veterans were now at home, enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pies with their loved ones. Millions more were coming home soon, as fast as the vast fleet of ships in Operation Magic Carpet could ferry them across the seas. It was the first American Thanksgiving without war in almost four years.
A call to thanksgiving
President Harry Truman, the straightforward and commonsensical Midwesterner who had assumed the presidency only seven months earlier upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, officially proclaimed November 22, 1945 as a “day of national thanksgiving.”
In his official proclamation to the nation, Truman exhorted his fellow countrymen to reflect on the great and costly victory which had just been won. “On this day of our abundance, strength, and achievement, let us give thanks to Almighty Providence (God) for these exceeding blessings. We have won them with the courage and the blood of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We have won them by the sweat and ingenuity of our workers, farmers, engineers, and industrialists. We have won them with the devotion of our women and children. We have bought them with the treasure of our rich land. But, above all, we have won them because we cherish freedom beyond riches and even more than life itself.”
He concluded his declaration with a plea that Americans give thanks to God and that they remember those who had just given their lives for freedom in the Second World War. “May we on that day (Thanksgiving Day), in our homes and in our places of worship, individually and as groups, express our humble thanks to Almighty God for the abundance of our blessings; and may we on that occasion rededicate ourselves to those high principles of citizenship for which so many splendid Americans have recently given all.”
May we also, during this Thanksgiving week of 2020, remember those who gave their lives for liberty on the battlefields of Europe and across the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean ... 75 years ago. May we also cherish the freedom that they helped preserve, and may we give heartfelt thanks to God for His blessings on this land all throughout our history.