Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms

When bold words from FDR stirred a beloved American artist to action, the result was a set of paintings that forever captured our country’s spirit.

By Bruce Heydt

Freedom from Want - Norman RockwellFreedom of Worship - Norman Rockwell - Freedom of ReligionThe good people of Arlington, Vermont, did not have the war on their minds when they gathered for a town meeting one evening during the dog days of the summer of 1942. On the contrary, in contrast to the typically grim reports coming from the Pacific and European theaters early in the year, it was good news that drew Arlington townsfolk to their meeting: town councilors had announced plans to build a new school. Only one resident, Jim Edgerton, objected to the proposed building, and in the course of the evening’s proceedings, he rose to speak.

In all, it was an unremarkable evening that soon would have been forgotten were it not for the presence of a newcomer to the town—the famous illustrator Norman Rockwell. For months, Rockwell had been preoccupied by the memorable words of a speaker with a much larger audience than Jim Edgerton’s. He couldn’t stop thinking about the State of the Union address President Franklin D. Roosevelt had delivered on January 6, 1941. For Rockwell, the little town meeting connected with FDR’s words in a way that was downright inspiring.

Back in early 1941, when Roosevelt made the speech that so impressed Rockwell, America’s entry into the war was still nearly a year in the future, and many Americans remained unconvinced that the rampaging armies of European tyrants were a threat to them. Roosevelt struggled with the challenge of preparing the nation for ever-more-likely involvement in the war. His words needed to persuade isolationists that there was far more at stake than just a redrawn map of Europe. He needed to make clear that the values and liberties Americans took for granted were under attack. So, setting out the vision that would guide his policy in the months to come, Roosevelt told Congress:

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…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…means a worldwide 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.

Freedom from Fear - Norman RockwellFreedom of Speech - Norman RockwellNearly a year after Roosevelt’s address—immediately dubbed his Four Freedoms speech—the devastation of Pearl Harbor eliminated any lingering possibility that America might sit out the war. But as bad news arrived from all fronts in early 1942, it became obvious that Americans’ commitment to the war effort would need to be stoked continually. Manufacturers and every level of government would certainly play a role. So would many smaller organizations and individuals, including illustrators. “The artist, through the dramatic appeal of his posters, becomes the government’s mouthpiece in a language every citizen can understand,” declared an article in American Artist magazine.

Rockwell needed no further encouragement. Already a phenomenally successful illustrator with more than 200 Saturday Evening Post covers to his credit, Rockwell was eager to contribute inspirational images to help drive the war effort. He struggled with the challenge of devoting his talent to something “bigger than a war poster, to make some statement about why the country was fighting the war.”

Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech had struck a chord with Rockwell, but the lofty language contrasted sharply with Rockwell’s folksy images of small-town America. “I juggled the Four Freedoms around in my mind, reading a sentence here, a sentence there, trying to find a picture,” he later recalled. “But it was so high-blown. Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.” So, while the Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington began churning out dozens of war posters, Rockwell sat pondering how he might bring such lofty words down to earth.

Jim Edgerton’s objection to the Arlington, Vermont, school proposal provided the answer. Here was Roosevelt’s vision in action. No one at that town meeting agreed with Edgerton, but all of them honored his right to state his case, and all of them listened respectfully. Here was the first freedom, the freedom of speech, expressed in a simple, familiar American scene—the sort Rockwell excelled at depicting.

Once he visualized the first scene, the other three quickly formed in his mind. An image of people of a variety of religious beliefs cheerfully conversing in a barbershop represented the freedom to worship. A family gathered around a table for a Thanksgiving meal embodied the ideal of freedom from want. Parents bundling their children safely in a warm bed conveyed freedom from fear.

Invigorated by his visions, Rockwell set to work with a passion, and in just a few days had completed four full-size preliminary sketches of the ideas. Soon afterward, he set off for Washington, DC, with fellow artist Mead Schaeffer, who had some sketches of his own to show the OWI. Rockwell’s hopes were sky-high. “I got all excited,” he enthused. “I knew it was the best idea I’d ever had.”

In the capital, however, his grand idea failed to spark any interest. One government official after another gave Rockwell’s Four Freedoms a perfunctory glance before politely thanking Rockwell and Schaeffer for their patriotism and then offering regrets. “The war was going badly,” Rockwell recalled in his autobiography. “Nobody had time for posters. Robert Patterson, the undersecretary of war said, ‘We’d love to print your Four Freedoms, but we can’t.’”

Rockwell and Schaeffer made it clear they did not expect to be paid for their posters, but it made no difference. “Finally, late in the afternoon, we found ourselves in the Office of War Information…,” Rockwell wrote. “I showed the Four Freedoms to the man in charge of posters but he wasn’t even interested. ‘The last war you illustrators did the posters,’ he said. ‘This war we’re going to use fine arts men, real artists. If you want to make a contribution to the war effort you can do some of these pen-and-ink drawings for the Marine Corps calisthenics manual. But as far as your Four Freedoms go, we aren’t interested.’” Rockwell declined the offer to illustrate the exercise book and threw in the towel. The next morning, he and Schaeffer boarded a train for Philadelphia.

The stop in Philadelphia had nothing to do with war posters, but it gave Rockwell an opportunity to meet with Ben Hibbs, the newly hired editor of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s contributions to the magazine had been his bread and butter for many years, but the magazine was changing, and Hibbs was new and unknown. Rockwell hoped to build a rapport with him and planned to discuss some ideas for future covers.

Still smarting from his failure to interest the OWI in what he considered his best idea ever, Rockwell found it hard to get excited about the meeting with Hibbs—until he mentioned off-handedly that he had been in Washington they day before. Hibbs asked him why. When Rockwell described the Four Freedoms series, Hibbs perked up: “Let’s see it.”

“So I hauled the sketches out and showed them to him,” Rockwell remembered. “Ben listened attentively. Then he broke in: ‘Norman, you’ve got to do them for us…. Drop everything else,’ said Ben, ‘just do the Four Freedoms.’”

Rockwell left Hibbs’s office with a promise to deliver the finished paintings within two months, but the task evolved into an agonizing six-month ordeal. “I had a terrible time,” he admitted. “I started the first one I did—Freedom of Speech—over four times. I practically finished it twice, finding each time when I had just a few days’ work left that it wasn’t right.”

Freedom of Worship proved even trickier. “Most of the trouble stemmed from the fact that religion is an extremely delicate subject,” Rockwell wrote. “It is so easy to hurt so many people’s feelings.” Rockwell’s original sketch for Freedom of Worship had depicted a diverse group of people cheerfully getting along in a barbershop, but the scene was ambiguous and lacked conviction. “I discarded the picture and started another…. But that didn’t work out either,” he recalled. “I started another, junked it.” After the final image took form, Rockwell couldn’t quite remember where his final ideas had come from. “There is a mystery about the phrase which is lettered across the top of the painting—‘Each according to the dictates of his own conscience,’ he wrote. “I know I read it somewhere but no one has been able to find it in any book or document.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the two paintings that gave Rockwell the fewest fits—Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear—ultimately proved the least satisfying to him. He felt that they lacked the “wallop” of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship.

An American public in need of encouragement didn’t seem to notice any shortcomings. According to Hibbs, when the Four Freedoms appeared in four consecutive issues of the Saturday Evening Post beginning on February 20, 1943, they “quickly became the best-known and most appreciated paintings of that era. They appeared right at a time when the war was going against us on the battle fronts, and the American people needed the inspirational message they conveyed so forcefully and so beautifully.”

Hibbs accompanied each of Rockwell’s images with an essay by a hand-picked writer who attempted to expound on the ideas Rockwell had depicted with his brush. Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington wrote the accompanying text for Freedom of Speech. Prolific historian Will Durant commented on Freedom of Worship. Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino immigrant, wrote the essay for Freedom from Want, and poet and OWI staffer Stephen Vincent Benét pondered Freedom from Fear.

At the conclusion of the four-part series of illustrations and essays, the Saturday Evening Post offered its readers a chance to buy sets of reproductions suitable for framing. It promptly filled 25,000 orders. More satisfying to Rockwell, though, must have been the news that the OWI, which six months earlier had told Rockwell it preferred to employ real artists, now sought permission to print 2.5 million posters featuring the Four Freedoms. The OWI made these posters the centerpiece of a war-bond drive in early 1943. Copies of them, accompanied by banners urging citizens to fight for the freedoms depicted, appeared in factories, offices, and stores throughout the country. The original art went on tour, too. The Four Freedoms War Bond Show traveled around the nation, appearing in major department stores. Many municipalities staged parades and appearances by celebrities to coincide with the show’s arrival. The year-long campaign drew more than 1.2 million people and raised $133 million for the war effort.

The man who had inspired Rockwell with his January 1941 address to Congress could not have been more pleased. “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms,” Roosevelt told Rockwell. “I congratulate you…for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world.”

After the war-bonds tour, the images returned to Philadelphia, but continued to stir deep emotions. Hibbs, writing an addendum to Rockwell’s autobiography years later, declared:

Following the war, the original paintings—they are of heroic size—were hung in our offices. The two which I consider the finest of the four—Freedom of Worship and Freedom of Speech—hang in my own office and I love them. They are a daily source of inspiration to me—in the same way that the clock tower of old Independence Hall, which I can see from my office window, inspires me. If this is Fourth of July talk, so be it. Maybe this country needs a bit more Fourth of July the year round.

Critics would call this sugary sentimentalism—a fault they find with all of Rockwell’s work. But at that one moment in the American drama, at least, it seems that Hibbs was right: a bit more Fourth of July was what the country needed most.

Bruce Heydt is a former editor of British Heritage magazine and a frequent contributor to America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of America in WWII. Find out how to order a copy of this issue here. To get more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII magazine.

Illustrations: Government-issued posters promoting the sale of war bonds feature Norman Rockwell’s depictions of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt declared to be essential to America. Images courtesy of Northwestern University Library

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