Norman 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 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.
Womanpower: the Fight for the Four Freedoms
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”
Freedom’s Legacy: A Conversation with Ruby Bridges
CHANGING TIMES: ROCKWELL AND CIVIL RIGHTS In the 1960’s, leaving behind his beloved storytelling scenes, Norman Rockwell threw himself into a new genre—the documentation of social issues. As evidenced in his Four Freedoms paintings, Rockwell wanted to make a difference with his art, and as a trusted and highly marketable illustrator, he had the opportunity to do so. Humor and pathos—traits that made his Saturday Evening Post covers successful—were replaced by the direct, reportorial style of magazine editorials. After ending his forty-seven year career with The Post in 1963, Rockwell sought new artistic challenges. His first assignment for Look—The Problem We All Live With—portrayed a six-year-old African-American girl being escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans, an assertion on moral decency. In 1965, Rockwell focused on the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and in 1967, he chose children, once again, to illustrate desegregation in our nation’s suburbs. In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled that he once had to paint out an African-American person in a picture since The Post’s policy dictated showing people of color in service industry jobs only. Freed from such restraints, Rockwell anxiously sought opportunities to correct the editorial prejudices reflected in his previous work.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’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.
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.
Reimagining The Four Freedoms – video
What does freedom mean in the 21st century? In celebration of the 75th anniversary of “The Four Freedoms,” Norman Rockwell Museum teamed up with New York’s Capital Area Art Supervisors to present a unique exhibition that examined President Franklin Delano’s concept, famously painted by artist Norman Rockwell, from the perspective of a new generation. In this video, we meet with participating artists from Guilderland High School, Niskayuna High School, and Shaker High School in New York State, to find out what freedom means to them. Video produced by Jeremy Clowe. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.
Norman Rockwell’s Neighbor on “The Four Freedoms”
In this 2009 interview, Norman Rockwell’s next-door neighbor James “Buddy” Edgerton describes how the artist found inspiration for his iconic “Four Freedoms” paintings, starting with “Freedom of Speech.”
NRM Volunteer George Church on listening to the Four Freedoms speech on the radio in 1941
On November 17, 2015, Norman Rockwell Museum volunteer and former employee, George Church sat down to talk about his experiences listening to a live radio broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941 and paying a visit to see the “Freedom Train” in 1943 to witness Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedom” paintings in person during a nationwide war bond effort to support the United States of America’s efforts in the war.
Freedom of Worship 75th Anniversary video highlight
Freedom of Worship, Norman Rockwell. 1943. Oil on canvas, 46” x 35 ½” Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943 From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum ©1943 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN