Rockwell’s Four Freedoms represented America

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On 323 covers of the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell put stuff into illustrated art. He painted human figures telling stories, grandmothers imparting wisdom or cooking, clean-cut Boy Scouts, a girl with two black eyes, “Rosie” helping the war effort, and station wagons with wooden panels. He painted American life that was desired before events shattered any semblance of national solidarity.

In 1943, this folksy cracker-barrel joker, in a tweedy jacket and bow tie, and a Dunhill pipe positioned in his mouth, painted the Four Freedoms and instantly became “America’s artist in chief.”

Four Freedoms

The four freedoms paintings symbolized what World War II was about. With Germany’s victory over France in less than six weeks in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England hit the panic button. Britain now stood alone in the defense of democracy in Europe. Churchill needed America’s vast industrial power and human resources.

On Aug. 12, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill met stealthily in the backwaters of Placentia Bay of Argentia in Newfoundland. From the weeklong meeting came the Atlantic Charter that proclaimed the reasons the two countries were fighting the Axis Powers: to ensure life, liberty, independence and religious freedom.

Roosevelt would reiterate these freedoms in his annual message to Congress Jan. 16, 1942, and they would be recognized as the four freedoms.

In the spring of 1942, Norman Rockwell heard that the graphic division of the U.S. Office of Facts and Figures wanted to develop art work to accompany a nationwide war bond drive. He read Roosevelt’s speech to Congress and the Atlantic Charter and produced four oversize charcoal sketches of his interpretation of the four freedoms.

By mid-June, he was in the newly constructed Pentagon showing his drawing and “was given a painful snub; they were not interested.”

The Post

Returning home to Arlington, Vermont, Rockwell stopped in Philadelphia at the Curtis Publishing Company to meet the new editor of the Post, Ben Hibbs. Hibbs, 41 years old and the former editor of the country Gentleman magazine, took one look at the charcoal drawings and told Rockwell to “hurry up and finish the paintings in two months.”

It would take seven months to finish the undertaking that would be his crowning achievement in the world of art.

In the meantime, the Post, with a readership of 3.3 million and selling for 10 cents at the newsstand, was working on a layout for the paintings and having President Roosevelt introduce the series.

Freedom of Speech was the first in the series to be painted. It took two months to complete; he did four versions and said, “it was a harrowing ordeal.”

The speaker, front and center in the painting, is a handsome man dressed casually and suggests that he is of the working class. He is standing, looking skyward as if thinking about his words, talking at a New England town meeting. No women are present in the painting, but a little girl can be seen straining about her grandfather to see the speaker.

The town fathers, dressed in shirt and tie, are respectfully listening to what he has to say. The speaker is comfortable with his remarks because the prepared speech is folded and displayed in his jacket pocket.

The painting has remained popular with viewers through the years, along with Rosie the Riveter and The Shiner.

Freedom of Worship was the second painting in the series and also took two months to complete. Rockwell’s first attempt was focused on a barber shop and showed a group of men, representing various religions, getting haircuts. Rockwell scrapped that painting because the message of tolerance failed to present itself to the viewer.

The final version has eight heads crowded together, facing westward, and in a peaceful state of prayer. They represent individuals of different religions with a man holding a Bible and a woman with a string of rosary beads.

Freedom of Want was third in production. In the painting, the viewer is looking at a Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey the focal point. The sheer curtains allow the mid afternoon light to brighten the table and the people who are pleased to be at grandmother’s house for the meal. The happy atmosphere of the people seems to contradict the solemn Thanksgiving spirit of heads lowered in prayer with hands folded. Nevertheless, the New England Puritan spirit is evident by the glass of water at each place setting.

Rockwell was critical of the work in that he thought he made the turkey too big. Europeans criticized the painting as an example of American consumer gluttony.

The last picture was the Freedom of Fear. Of the four paintings, this is the most anecdotal. A mother and father are looking at their two children who are asleep and all is right with the world, no need to worry. Father has his newspaper and reading glasses in hand passively observing his wife tenderly lifting the bedding to cover the children. The painting conveys what any parent knows, watching children sleep can elicit a powerful sense of well-being and freedom of fear in the world.

Finally finished

After seven months of continuous labor and refusing advertising work from Schick razors, Bosco chocolate, Green Giant vegetables, and Niblet corn, the quartet of paintings was finally finished. Each painting was 4 feet high and 3 feet wide.

While Rockwell labored at the paintings, the Post was laying out “one of the greatest promotional campaigns since the Burman-Shave fence post advertising.”

On four consecutive issues, the Post published the paintings in full color on page 13 starting Feb. 20, 1944. President Roosevelt introduced the series by saying, “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truth behind the four freedoms.”

The Post production was a huge sensation. Many Americans recognized themselves in the paintings, and World War II took on a different meaning. Some 60,000 letters arrived at the Post expressing the feelings of the readers. Gifts from people Rockwell never met arrived at his home in Vermont. The Office of War Information, seeing the Post’s success with the Four Freedoms paintings, agreed to print 2.5 million posters for distribution.

The original paintings became the centerpiece for a traveling war bond campaign undertaken by the U.S. Treasury Dept. In New York City, where the tour originated, a sum of one million dollars was raised in two days.

Every individual who purchased an $18.75 war bond that matured at $25 got a set of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. In concert with the bond drive, movie theaters across the country showed a five minute newsreel called The Four Freedoms.

In his paintings, Rockwell portrayed the theme that Americans might notice each other. He was bolstering the nation’s character. On Nov. 8, 1978, Norman Rockwell died at the age of 84. America’s great illustrator was gone after 50 years of making us look at ourselves. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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