In his January 1941 address to Congress, as World War II loomed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a streamlined statement of American principles, defined as “four freedoms”: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. By the time the war ended, those national aspirations were probably best known from a series of four paintings by magazine illustrator Norman Rockwell that is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.
The show’s title, “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms,” suggests a collaboration between the president and the painter. In fact, the two men met only once, for about 10 minutes.
That parley happened after the popular appeal of Rockwell’s artworks had already been well established. Initially, some government policymakers were unimpressed with Rockwell’s 1943 pictures. But the “Four Freedoms” went on to help sell millions of war bonds to people who were rewarded with prints of the paintings, or, in some cases, with a chance to gaze at the originals. (The quartet’s national tour began at Hecht’s Department Store, then at 7th and F streets NW.)