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Historical Tidbit: Norman Rockwell Paints FDR’s “Four Freedoms”

Painted during World War II, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” depicts an abundant family dinner in a nostalgic setting.
Image from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

On consecutive weeks in 1943, American painter Norman Rockwell debuted a set of four paintings that he called “The Four Freedoms.” These paintings were inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress regarding the nation’s struggle to promote democracy during World War II. Though the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1942, President Roosevelt began his speech by describing the existential threats facing America and its allies. In the speech, Roosevelt asked regular Americans to make sacrifices to protect democracy around the world. He then detailed the four freedoms which he saw as most fundamental to a new, democratic world order after the war. Each of Roosevelt’s four freedoms is vividly interpreted in one of Rockwell’s works.

The first of the paintings is “Freedom from Want.” The painting portrays a family seated around a lavishly decorated table, enjoying each other’s company as they are being served a decadent meal. Themes of a united family, and the ideal American lifestyle are portrayed through the joyful expressions worn by each character, and in their apparent disregard for the food being served. An important aspect of this painting is that the characters are aware of the food being served, but they appear to value each other’s company more than the meal being served. Because food exists in such abundance, they are free from desire for more. To inspire Americans to stay focused on the American Dream during times of struggle, Rockwell illustrates a happy family that is able to appreciate the importance of fellowship rather than worrying about everyday necessities.

In “Freedom of Speech,” a man rises from an audience of his peers to speak his mind.
Image from the Norman Rockwell Museum

The second of these paintings is “Freedom of Speech.” This painting is based off of President Roosevelt’s call for “freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.” Rockwell portrays an ordinary man rising to speak at a town meeting. His seated peers listen around him as he expresses his opinions.

In this image from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Worship” is used in a poster calling for Americans to buy bonds to fund World War II.

“Freedom of Worship” is the third painting from this series. It portrays people from a variety of faiths in profile as they pray. As one of the country’s founding ideals, freedom of worship remains an important part of what it means to live in America. This painting, however, only represents a fraction of religions that exist across the nation. Because of this, it can be perceived as contradictory to its purpose of attempting to represent religious freedom.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Fear” in its original context, published along with an essay as a spread in theSunday Evening Post. Photo from the National WWII Museum Blog.

The final painting is titled “Freedom From Fear.” The painting portrays two children tucked peacefully into bed, seemingly oblivious to the perils of the world. In the foreground of this painting, the children’s parents stand, watching their children sleep, while the father holds a newspaper. Furthermore, the newspaper is riddled with headlines regarding the treacherous state of the world. This juxtaposition of the sleeping children against the perilous headlines could be said to represent the trust that Americans had in their country to keep them safe.

While Rockwell’s paintings effectively express the American ideal, it is important to note that his works do not accurately depict the racial diversity present in America. This is, in part, a result of the harsh criticism that artists faced for depicting people of color and people of different ethnic backgrounds. The original sketches of “Freedom of Worship” included an African-American man who appeared in the attire of an agrarian worker, but it was removed from the final painting, perhaps because his editors criticized his characters for being too representative of specific stereotypes, or as a result of racist motivations.

This collection of paintings, even today, is an important reminder of how the nation aimed to be perceived, and what kind of place it has historically aspired to be. While it is important to note that Rockwell does not portray important aspects of diversity in his works, his pieces are his interpretation of what the United States stood for and the hard work put in by its people to grow and preserve its freedom. When these paintings were published during World War II, they represented a central pillar of what Americans were fighting for.

~ Emma Petersen

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