In May 1942, Norman Rockwell stopped by a drab bureaucrat’s office in the Pentagon and learned of the urgent need for images of the four freedoms.
He could not have imagined that the visit would result in four of America’s most cherished paintings. Nor could he have imagined that, 76 years later, his work inspire contemporary artists to reinterpret them with more diverse subjects.
Rockwell had come to military headquarters to get approval for a poster promoting the Army’s Ordnance Department.
On his way out the building, he stopped by the Office of Facts and Figures Graphic Division. An official then told Rockwell of a tall order: to create posters and billboards about the four freedoms.
Rockwell rose to the task. But it didn’t come easy.
The Four Freedoms
President Franklin Roosevelt had laid out the four freedoms as a rationale for entering World War II.
“As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone,” Roosevelt said in his speech (watch it here) articulating the four freedoms everyone in the world ought to enjoy.
Rockwell went home to Arlington, Vt., and puzzled over ways to illustrate abstract ideas like ‘no aggrandizement.’ The solution came to him as he lay in bed.
He thought of a neighbor, Jim Edgerton, who had stood up at town meeting and criticized the decision to rebuild a school that had burned down. No one agreed with him, but everyone listened respectfully.
“That’s it! That’s freedom of speech!” thought Rockwell. The next morning he was up at 5 a.m., drawing sketches of ordinary people doing ordinary things that illustrated basic American freedoms.
Fine Arts Men
He took his large charcoal drawings back to the Pentagon’s new Office of War Information (OWI), a centralized propaganda bureau. Typically, Norman Rockwell would roll out his sketches on the floor like a rug, grinning with expectation.
He received a painful insult. An official believed to be Archibald MacLeish wouldn’t even look at them. “The last war you illustrators did the posters,” he said, according to Deborah Solomon in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. “This war we’re going to use fine arts men, real artists.”
MacLeish, an intellectual snob, edited the Saturday Evening Post’s rival, Fortune magazine. As assistant director of the OWI, he hired modernist artists like Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Salvador Dali to create posters for the war effort. They were never used.
On his way home, Rockwell stopped off in Philadelphia to show his sketches to Ben Hibbs, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post. Hibbs loved them.
Four Freedoms, Seven Months
For the next seven months, Norman Rockwell worked feverishly on the paintings, pleading illness to avoid his other obligations and working himself into a state of nervous exhaustion. By the time he was finished he was flat broke and had lost 15 pounds.
He reworked the first painting, ‘Freedom of Speech,’ over and over, using a local gas station owner as his model for the working-class man standing up and speaking at town meeting.
He also had trouble with ‘Freedom of Worship,’ which featured eight heads representing different religions. Rose Hoyt, the model for the Catholic woman, told Rockwell she was an Episcopalian when he asked her to hold rosary beads. “Would you be a Catholic for today?” he asked.
‘Freedom From Fear’ is a sentimental interior scene of young parents checking in on their children before turning in for the night.
‘Freedom From Want’ was the third in the series, and many consider it Rockwell’s masterpiece. Mrs. Wheaton, Rockwell’s cook, modeled as the grandmother serving an enormous Thanksgiving turkey to a large family sitting around a table at midafternoon. Art critics especially admire the play of white-on-white; some note the beverage of choice – water – as casting a Puritan tone.
Europeans, however, criticized the painting as an image of American gluttony. Rockwell later thought he’d made the turkey too big.
The paintings, published in four consecutive editions of the Saturday Evening Post, were a smash. The magazine received 60,000 letters, overwhelmingly positive. Even President Roosevelt wrote a letter praising them. ‘You have done a superb job bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms,” he wrote.
The Office of War Information, which had rejected Rockwell’s drawings, agreed to print 2.5 million posters of them. The U.S. Department of the Treasury took them on tour to 16 cities to promote war bonds. To kick it off, a five-minute newsreel of Rockwell painting in his studio appeared in movie theaters around the country.
The exhibit opened in Washington, D.C., on April 27, 1943, to huge crowds. More than $1 million in war bonds were sold in that city alone, as Rockwell autographed copies of the paintings. He declined to tour with the exhibit, and returned to Vermont.
Resurgence of the Four Freedoms
The year 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the Four Freedoms exhibit in Washington — and a revival of interest in the Four Freedoms.
The Four Freedoms toured the country again — along with modern interpretations of the classic paintings. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., solicited entries by contemporary artists and selected 37 to accompany the Four Freedoms on a multiple-city tour beginning in October 2018. It returned to the Norman Rockwell Museum two years later.
“He is experiencing a resurgence this year,” noted the New York Times in November 2018. “But it is the interpretation of the artist’s classic images, perhaps, that has given Mr. Rockwell’s work renewed life.”
Most of the artists, according to the Times, were prompted by the racial and political tension dividing the country. One artist produced a photograph showing a gay couple serving Thanksgiving dinner. Another photographed an African-American woman standing up at Town Meeting.
A tweeter with the handle @stubbonabby tweeted,
I used to work at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA and lemme tell you–he’d be 100% in favor of this.
To see some reimagined images of the Four Freedoms, click here.
Ironically, Archibald MacLeish would leave the OWI after only eight months in office, citing policy differences.
This story about the Four Freedoms was updated in 2022.