About the Exhibition

Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom

Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom explores the indelible odyssey of humanity’s greatest ideals.

The notion of the Four Freedoms has inspired dozens of national constitutions across the globe, yet Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration that the United States was willing to fight for Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—now considered a sublime moment in rhetorical history—did not turn out to be the immediate triumph envisioned by the President.  As the nation found itself sliding ever closer to direct involvement in World War II, the underlying meaning of his words captured surprisingly little attention among Americans. Following his January 6, 1941, Annual Message to Congress, government surveys showed that only half of Americans were aware of FDR’s Four Freedoms and that less than a quarter could identify them correctly. Moreover, many had no clear idea why the United States was being called upon to enter the war.

It would take the continuous efforts of the White House, the Office of War Information, and scores of patriotic artists to give the Four Freedoms new life.  Most prominent among those was Norman Rockwell, whose images 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 publicizing the Second War Loan Drive bringing the Four Freedoms directly into American homes and workplaces. When Eleanor Roosevelt convinced United Nations delegates to include these ideals in its postwar statement of human rights, FDR’s words—now forever entwined with Rockwell’s images—achieved immortality.

Born amid the turmoil of World War II, the Four Freedoms have since become one of its greatest legacies, a testament to the paramount importance of human rights and dignity. Brought forward by one of America’s greatest presidents and immortalized by one of its most beloved artists more than seventy-five years ago, the Four Freedoms continue to inspire, resonating across generations as strongly today as they did in their time.

Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms is an exhibition organized by Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA.

The War Generation

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told Americans in 1933 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but the nation was justified in its concerns during that turbulent time. The stock market crash of 1929 had swiftly transformed the Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression. Banks closed their doors, bread lines became a common sight, and so-called Hoovervilles dotted the landscape. Jim Crow policies and racial inequality were facts of life for millions, and much of the nation’s grain belt became a dusty wasteland, fostering a mass exodus of destitute migrants seeking jobs that were no longer available. Dorothea Lange’s timeless photograph of a forlorn pea picker and her daughters came to represent a generation and a nation that seemed to have lost its way.

Image credits:
Florence Owens Thompson, Dorothea Lange. 1936. Collection of the Library of Congress
Gas Mask 1940, J.C. Leyendecker. 1939. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Bread Line, Arthur Rothstein. Collection of the Library of Congress

FDR’s Four Freedoms

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.

Image credits:
Willie Gillis: Care Package, Norman Rockwell. 1941. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Atlantic Charter: FDR and Churchill. 1941. FDR Library and Museum / National Archives
Even a little can help a lot – NOW, Al Parker. 1942.

The Artistic Response

Recognizing that his Four Freedoms were not capturing public attention, President Roosevelt and his team considered alternative ways to publicize them on the home front.

In 1942, the White House invited the art world to lend a hand in raising public awareness, and the nation’s artists, writers, actors, designers, composers, and musicians vigorously took up the challenge of promoting the war effort and advancing the Four Freedoms.

Image credits:
The Four Freedoms, Arthur Szyk. 1942. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley.
The Four Freedoms Monument, Walter Russell 1943.
The Four Freedoms, Ralph Fabri. 1943.

Rockwell's Four Freedoms

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 Postartist Mead Schaeffer, went to Washington to propose his ideas.

Image credits:
Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell. 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Freedom of Worship, Norman Rockwell. 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell. 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.
Freedom from Fear, Norman Rockwell. 1943. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

“The Four Freedoms are so darned high-blown. Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.” Norman Rockwell

Freedom’s Legacy

President Roosevelt made clear that the Four Freedoms were “no vision of a distant millennium.”  Their odyssey did not end with FDR, nor with Rockwell.

As World War II came to a close, the Allies began to hold planning meetings for what would become the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed the late president’s legacy, ceaselessly touted FDR’s freedoms as an appropriate summation of democracy and human rights, and war weary nations agreed.  Enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Four Freedoms are a testament and an inspiration that arose from the ashes of war to affirm the precious nature of freedom everywhere in the world.

Image credits:
United Nations, Norman Rockwell. 1953. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency.
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. United Nations / FDR Library & Museum / National Archives
The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell. 1964. Norman Rockwell Family Agency.

Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms is Sponsored by

Jay Alix, The Alix Foundation, George Lucas Family Foundation, Travelers, Major Support provided by: Anonymous, Michael Bakwin, Helen Bing, Elephant Rock Foundation, Annie & Ned Lamont, Ted Slavin, Heritage Auctions, Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Additional Support provided by: Anthony and Susan Consigli, Ralph and Audrey Friedner, Louise Holland, Our GoFundMe Supporters, Curtis Licensing, Norman Rockwell Family Foundation.