In the spring of 1942, Norman Rockwell was working on a piece commissioned by the Ordnance Department of the US Army, a painting of a machine gunner in need of ammunition.
Posters featuring Let’s Give Him Enough and On Time were distributed to munitions factories throughout the country to encourage production. But Rockwell wanted to do more for the war effort and determined to illustrate Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Finding new ideas for paintings never came easily, but this was a greater challenge.
While considering his options, Rockwell by chance attended a town meeting where a Vermont neighbor was met with respect when he rose among his neighbors to voice an unpopular view. That night he awoke with the realization that he could best paint the Four Freedoms from the perspective of his own experiences, using everyday scenes as his guide. Rockwell made some sketches and, accompanied by fellow Saturday Evening Post artist Mead Schaeffer, went to Washington to propose his ideas.
As was his complex, customary process, the artist’s thumbnail drawings and large scale charcoal sketches, no longer extant, were followed by preliminary color studies in oil before he finished his paintings seven months later. Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear were clearly conceptualized in his mind from the start, but Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship presented greater challenges. For each painting, he carefully choreographed the expressions and poses of each of his chosen models, and worked closely with his studio assistant Gene Pelham to photograph them for future reference. Freedom of Worship was initially set in a barber shop with people of different faiths and races chatting amiably and waiting their turn, a notion that Rockwell ultimately rejected as stereotypical. For Freedom of Speech, he experimented with several different vantage points, including two that engulfed the speaker in the crowd. In the final work, the speaker stands heads and shoulders above the observers, the clear center of attention.
In April 1943, one month after their appearance in the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s original paintings began a sixteen-city Four Freedoms War Bond Show tour to publicize the Second War Loan Drive. The U.S. Treasury Department, realizing their potential to generate revenue through the sale of war bonds and to boost public morale, partnered with the Post to sponsor the tour.
Rosie the Riveter emerged as an emblem of the working woman during World War II, the center of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for defense industries. Visualized in the early 1940s by American illustrators J. Howard Miller and Norman Rockwell, Rosie represented women who entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war as widespread male enlistment greatly diminished the industrial labor force. In 1943, when Rockwell painted his overall-clad icon, more than 310,000 women were employed in the U.S. aircraft industry alone, making up sixty-five percent of its total workforce compared to just one percent in the pre-war years. As a popular song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb recounted:
“All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history,
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter”
Although the nation was not yet at war in January 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his annual message to Congress to proclaim the Four Freedoms as a de facto war standard to one and all.
Building on his reflections into the nature of freedom in the months beforehand, he enumerated for his audience each of the freedoms, stressing that they were not just a national ideal, but one that was needed “everywhere in the world.” Seven months later, in a secret meeting with Winston Churchill at sea, the two leaders signed the Atlantic Charter, whose principals built on the Four Freedoms and gave the president’s notion even more publicity.
Despite these highly public moments, however, the concept of the Four Freedoms failed to resonate on Capitol Hill, in journalistic reports, or even with the American public.
It was not until Norman Rockwell painted his Four Freedoms that Americans could really understand what they were fighting for and why the Four Freedoms were so important to the country and the world.
After the war, the Four Freedoms became the DNA for what would become the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the blueprint for how a post war society would be envisioned.
May 25, 2018 - September 2, 2018
The New-York Historical Society was established in 1804 as New York’s first museum. Its eleven founders all lived through the turbulent years of the American Revolution and the British occupation of New York. These men believed that New York’s citizens needed to take decisive action to preserve eyewitness evidence of their own historical moment, which they recognized as important, fearing “dust and obscurity” would be the inevitable fate of accounts and artifacts if left in the hands of private individuals. “Without the aid of original records and authentic documents,” they declared, “history will be nothing more than a well-combined series of ingenious conjectures and amusing fables.”
170 Central Park West
at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
New York, NY 10024
July 16, 2018 - September 2, 2018
The Reimagining the Four Freedoms exhibition was formerly located at the Roosevelt House, Hunter College.
Casa Lally, a former townhouse located on East 65th Street, is now home to the Department of Art and Art History’s Artist’s Institute at Hunter College, formerly housed on the Lower East Side but now closer to Hunter’s main campus. The first floor of the townhouse was converted to a modern gallery space, featuring specially-designed lighting, laminated walls, refinished flooring (including radiant heating) and built-in furniture.
Casa Lally is presenting Reimagining the Four Freedoms, a juried exhibition of works by contemporary artists re-interpreting the Four Freedoms. Their compelling artworks in all media give voice to their observations and concerns about freedoms found and lost in our times.
132 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065