Norman Rockwell’s Images of Freedom Revisited 75 Years Later

In this 1938 self-portrait called Deadline (Artist Facing Blank Canvas), Norman Rockwell painted himself trying to think of ideas for a cover illustration. (J.Taboh/VOA)
In this 1938 self-portrait called Deadline (Artist Facing Blank Canvas), Norman Rockwell painted himself trying to think of ideas for a cover illustration. (J.Taboh/VOA)

Helping tell America’s story

Most Americans became familiar with his work through his hundreds of cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post, the most widely circulated weekly magazine in America during the first half of the 20th century. Rockwell painted his first illustration for the magazine in 1916 at the age of 22, and considered the Post to be the “greatest show window in America” for an illustrator.

Over the next 47 years, another 320 Rockwell images would appear on its cover, and hundreds of his other illustrations were featured in popular publications over a career that spanned six decades.

Four Freedoms

Among Rockwell’s most enduring works is a series of four paintings titled Four Freedoms, inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address to Congress on January 6, 1941.

Norman Rockwell standing in front of his painting Freedom of Speech at Hecht’s Department Store, Washington, DC, inaugural stop of the Four Freedoms War Bond Tour, 1943. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)
Norman Rockwell standing in front of his painting Freedom of Speech at Hecht’s Department Store, Washington, DC, inaugural stop of the Four Freedoms War Bond Tour, 1943. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)

In his speech, Roosevelt talked about his “Four Freedoms” ideals… the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear; principles that make up the cornerstones of democracy, which he believed people the world over had a right to enjoy.

Democracy for all

FDR presented the idea that these were principles worth fighting for, as war was being waged against other democracies across the continents in the eastern hemisphere. Eleven months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the war.

Rockwell’s interest in interpreting FDR’s Four Freedoms was born out of a quest to do more for the war effort. He spent seven months using his own observations and life experiences to create his own version.

The iconic paintings were the highlight among many other Rockwell works on display at a recent exhibit in ‘The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.’

“Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want, are ideals as powerful today as they were for Americans who fought in World War II,” museum director John Wetenhall said. “At a time and in a federal city where the true meaning of these values has become contested in the world of partisan and identity politics, it behooves us all to reflect back to when these very freedoms were in peril: ideals so powerfully embodied in Rockwell’s unforgettable icons.”

Enduring ideals

The exhibit, “Enduring ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts — where the paintings are permanently housed — to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Rockwell’s four paintings.

“Rockwell’s Four Freedoms are among the most recognizable images in American history,” says Stephanie Plunkett, Deputy Director/Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum. “They are reminders of the profound influence of visual imagery on the human imagination, and portray FDR’s timeless ideals in real world terms, reminding us that we, too, are heirs to these cherished values.”

In the essay accompanying Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, Filipino-born American immigrant, poet and essayist Carlos Bulosan wrote, “It is only when we have plenty to eat — plenty of everything — that we begin to understand what freedom means.”
In the essay accompanying Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, Filipino-born American immigrant, poet and essayist Carlos Bulosan wrote, “It is only when we have plenty to eat — plenty of everything — that we begin to understand what freedom means.”

“This exhibition focuses on a significant aspect of Rockwell’s art at a time when he was at the height of his career, during the 1930s Depression era and the World War II period, when magazines like The Saturday Evening Post provided both information and entertainment to a vast audience,” she added.

Those interpretations became a national sensation in early 1943 when they were first published in The Saturday Evening Post.

“Roosevelt’s words and Rockwell’s artworks soon became inseparable in the public consciousness, with millions of reproductions bringing the Four Freedoms directly into American homes and workplaces.”

Civil rights, social issues

The exhibit is the first comprehensive traveling exhibition devoted to Rockwell’s depiction of the president’s Four Freedoms, and also a rare opportunity to see other iconic works, including wartime paintings and posters, and his later artworks that addressed social issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam war.

Also on display were the objects and artifacts that are depicted in his paintings, such the jacket worn by Rockwell’s model Carl Hess in his Freedom of Speechpainting and the white dress worn by Ruby Bridges on her first day of school. Young Ruby was the first African American child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana, and had to be escorted to school by four U.S. Marshals every day throughout the school year because of the threats against her.

Rockwell's 1964 painting for Look magazine, The Problem We All Live With, is considered an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.(J.Taboh/VOA)
Rockwell’s 1964 painting for Look magazine, The Problem We All Live With, is considered an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (J.Taboh/VOA).

Modern interpretations

The exhibition also includes works by contemporary artists offering their own perspective on freedom. One powerful example is Maurice “Pops” Peterson’s Freedom from What? which plays off of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear illustration. It depicts a modern-day African-American couple putting their children to bed while looking over their shoulder as if for possible threats from the outside world.

Freedom from What? is part of Pops Peterson’s series REINVENTING ROCKWELL, to update the illustrations’ look for the 21st century, and show the evolution of gender roles, sexuality and ethnic diversity. (J.Taboh/VOA)
Freedom from What? is part of Pops Peterson’s series REINVENTING ROCKWELL, to update the illustrations’ look for the 21st century, and show the evolution of gender roles, sexuality and ethnic diversity (J.Taboh/VOA).

“It is our hope that Norman Rockwell’s enduring paintings will inspire a new generation of students, citizens, future leaders and elected officials to embody these human values in their life’s work,” said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Now closed in Washington, the next stop for “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” exhibit will be at Caen Memorial Museum, Normandy, France starting June 4 and closing October 27, 2019.

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