Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

Rockwell's Four Freedoms
Most Americans associate Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of the formal family meal, shown above, top, with today’s holiday of Thanksgiving, and its traditional signature main course of roast turkey.

The painting, however, was painted with a different intention (even though the model for the turkey was actually the turkey from his own family Thanksgiving dinner).

Titled Freedom From Want, the painting was originally part of a series of four; I’ve pulled the top one out of it’s usual third position in the sequence here. The others were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship and Freedom From Fear.

They were Rockwell’s response to a speech delivered by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Congress in January of 1941, in which he spoke of four essential freedoms that should be recognized and guaranteed everywhere in the world:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want — which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

The speech was meant to prepare Congress, and the American public, for Roosevelt’s intention that the country should become directly involved in opposing Nazi Germany in its widening military domination of Western Europe, which the U.S. did, with a declaration of war (such an old fashioned notion these days) in December of that year.

Roosevelt used the image of American ideals of freedom as a symbol of the individual liberties being suppressed by the Fascist regime. (On a side note, “Fascist” has become a popular epithet with which some American political figures attempt to brand their political enemies these days. Most people who use it, or at least those who listen to them, apparently have no idea what the term actually means. Look it up.)

Rockwell, at the time the dominant star of American illustration, had a strong response to Roosevelt’s speech and two years later painted a series of four paintings depicting the four freedoms as scenes from American life.

He originally conceived the series in 1942, and attempted to volunteer his services to the government agencies responsible for war propaganda, but was met with lack on interest. (“Propaganda“, by the way, is another term whose actual meaning is often lost in its buzzword connotations and popular interpretation. Again I suggest looking it up.)

Rockwell instead submitted the paintings to the Saturday Evening Post, for which he had been regularly painting covers, and their publication was met with great popular response and millions of requests for reprints.

The government eventually recognized the power of the images and used them on posters for the efforts to support the expense of the war with the sale of War Bonds (another quaint notion these days).

Rockwell himself reportedly struggled with the paintings, never entirely happy with them and concerned that they lacked sufficient power. He worked on them over a seven month period, during which he reportedly lost several pounds from the strain of working on them so intensely.

The public, however, loved them. They were reprinted on four million posters and were displayed in a touring exhibition that drew over a million visitors. They are now considered among Rockwell’s signature works, and were the subject of a book published in 1993 on the 50th anniversary of their original publication.

The four paintings are currently in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the director of which recently participated in the International Four Freedoms Award ceremonies in the Netherlands.

5 Replies to “Rockwell’s Four Freedoms”

  1. I have visited the Norman Rockwell Museum and all I can say is that it’s too bad that the major art museums don’t have his work on display. The first time I saw an original piece was at the Wadsworth Antheneum (The Young lady with a shiner). It’s actually an emotionnal experience to visit his museum in Stockbridge. The Brooklyn is currently showing a retrospective of him ”Behind the Camera”, which I would dearly love to see……….

  2. I have always deeply admired Freedom from Fear’s strong supporting diagonals throughout the composition.

    I love Rockwell for two reasons: the strong narrative in his images, and the absolute mastery of his craft that supports that narrative.

    Like Alvin, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a few Rockwell’s in person.

    They’re pretty darn inspiring.

  3. I am currently looking for a complete set of coffee cups that have these 4 paintings on them. My daughter got 2 of the 4 recently but did not get all four….Anyone know how/where I might get a set of these four cups?

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