Rockwell's 'Four Freedoms' resonate 75 years later


STOCKBRIDGE — At a time of national political turbulence, the 75th anniversary of Norman Rockwell's series of paintings, "The Four Freedoms," resonates strongly, especially for the many admirers of his work.

The illustrations, "Freedom of Speech," depicting a dignified everyman speaking his mind; "Freedom of Worship," a group in prayer; "Freedom from Want," an idyllic family dinner and "Freedom from Fear," showing parents tucking in their children, were published weekly on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, starting with the Feb. 20, 1943, issue.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an Eagle interview. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

"These are extraordinary scenes of American life, tour de force paintings," she added. "It's clear they were among the most influential, important paintings in American art, and their continuing relevance today speaks to that."

The artist based the four paintings on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's address to Congress in January 1941 that unveiled a vision for a postwar world based on the four basic human freedoms — two of them already enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and two more as "aspirational goals," as Norton Moffatt noted.

Rockwell, then living in Arlington, Vt., had been inspired by FDR's speech and the herculean U.S. war effort that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy," as the president told the nation the next day.

In his autobiography, Rockwell acknowledged the challenges of creating artwork based on the abstract, internationalist concepts of the president's Four Freedoms speech, later incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"It was so darned high-blown," he stated. "Somehow I just couldn't get my mind around it."

But he was inspired by observing grass-roots democracy in action when, by chance, he attended a town meeting in Arlington and observed a resident espousing an unpopular viewpoint.

Nevertheless, Rockwell was stymied for several months after gaining the commission for the works from Curtis Publishing, parent company of The Saturday Evening Post. "It was a job that should have been tackled by Michelangelo," he told The New Yorker magazine in an interview three years later.

Despite the artist's initial qualms, the public embraced the magazine covers, helping to raise Americans' spirits at the midpoint of World War II and rallying the nation behind the costly war effort.

A national tour, "The Four Freedoms War Bond Exhibition," was organized for display in department stores rather than museums, sponsored by the Post and the U.S. Treasury Department. The 16-city exhibit attracted more than 1 million visitors, raised about $130 million through the sale of war bonds and stamps — that's equal to nearly $2 billion in today's money — and made Rockwell a household name.

Now, to celebrate the 75th anniversary, the Norman Rockwell Museum has completed plans to send the paintings, continuously displayed in a special wing of the museum, out on tour, beginning this summer at the New York Historical Society and then traveling to cities nationwide before ending in Normandy, France, in fall 2020.

The exhibition, "Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms," is the first comprehensive traveling exhibition of one of his best-known works.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today — how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

She noted today's "hot-button issues, a free press, the free speech controversy on college campuses, protecting citizens from terrorism and freedom from want, the debate in Congress on whether all citizens should have access to health care, food and housing."

As in Rockwell's time, she pointed out, "these concepts are just as relevant today, perhaps even more so domestically while such fierce rhetoric is going on politically and in everyday discourse on social media."

The touring exhibition also includes numerous other examples of paintings and illustrations not only by Rockwell, but also some of his contemporaries — J.C. Leyendecker, Mead Schaeffer, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks. Historical documents, photographs, videos, artifacts, interactive digital displays and immersive settings will accompany the paintings.

Though the "Four Freedoms" will be absent from their home at the Norman Rockwell Museum, the exhibition will include a stop there from September to November 2020.

The paintings were published 14 months after the U.S. entered World War II, in order to reaffirm to the American people that they were fighting for universal ideals and human rights, said Paul Sparrow, director of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"[The Four Freedoms] were meant to get at the heart of what it meant to be an American," he told The Boston Globe. "They were meant to be four essential pieces of democracy, parts you couldn't survive without. I think it's always important to remember the ideals that made us a beacon of hope around the world."

Despite the overwhelming success of the "Four Freedoms" series, 1943 turned out to be a disastrous year for the artist. Rockwell's Arlington studio, numerous paintings, and his collection of historical costumes and props were destroyed by fire. In 1953, he moved to Stockbridge, where he lived and worked until his death in 1978.

Co-curators of the upcoming touring exhibition are Norman Rockwell Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett and James Kimble, associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

The George Lucas Family Foundation and the Travelers Cos. Inc., are among the lead sponsors and supporters of the exhibition.

Lucas, creator of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films, is an avid collector of Rockwell's artwork. In 2016, his foundation donated $1.5 million over three years to the Norman Rockwell Museum to enhance its digital learning efforts.

As Norton Moffatt pointed out, "We want people to understand the power his images had to shape public opinion, perception and action. That's rare in artists, to be able to communicate an idea in one picture that shapes behavior and changes how people might think and how society might come to act. I hope this will invite us all to think of when we might come together again around a common sense of values at a time when society feels so fractured."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at or 413-637-2551.


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