American Collections blog

23 May 2013

Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms

Rockwell

If you’ve already visited the Library to see Propaganda: power and persuasion (and if you haven’t, we’ll send Uncle Sam round to get you) you will have spotted 4 large posters by Norman Rockwell – the Four Freedoms, which have kindly been lent to us for the exhibition.

Rockwell (1894-1978) is probably one of the best known illustrators from the U.S.  Hugely popular with the public for his vignettes of small town American life, the critical reception of his work has been rather less favourable - his folksy depictions of everyday Americana proving much too sugary and sentimental for the fine art world. ‘I guess I have a bad case of the American nostalgia for the clean, simple country life as opposed to the complicated world of the city,’ he wrote. But his Four Freedoms perhaps symbolise one of those conjunctions when particular images can strike the right cord at just the right moment – and in this case, help to promote exactly the right message for the government of the time.

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address to the 77th U.S. Congress. Arguing that fundamental liberties and values were under attack, he sought to convince the nation of the need for involvement in the war.  In what came to be known as the 'Four Freedoms' speech, Roosevelt identified 4 essential human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear (you can read the full text here). These 'freedoms' were to become part of the founding principles of the Atlantic Charter, issued by FDR and Winston Churchill in August 1941 (text here).

Rockwell was  inspired by Roosevelt's speech and the Atlantic Charter - 'I wanted to do something bigger than a war poster, make some statement about why the country was fighting the war.' But he struggled to find a suitable idea. Then, during one sleepless night, he recalled seeing a neighbour stand up at a town meeting and say something with which everyone had disagreed. 'But they had let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My gosh, I thought, that's it. There it is. Freedom of Speech. I'll illustrate the Four Freedoms using my Vermont neighbours as models. I'll express the ideas in simple, everyday scenes. Freedom of Speech - a New England town meeting. Freedom from Want - a Thanksgiving dinner. Take them out of the noble language of the proclamation and put them in terms everybody can understand.'

He prepared some sketches to illustrate the Four Freedoms, and took them to various government departments. Even though there was some enthusiasm for his drawings, he met with little success. 'The war was going badly, no one had time for posters... Finally late in the afternoon, we found ourselves in the Office of War Information (or, to speak plainly, the propaganda department).' An official was shown the sketches but was immediately dismissive: 'The last war you illustrators did the posters... This war we're going to use fine arts men, real artists.' Rockwell finally decided to offer them to the Saturday Evening Post instead.

The Post had been using Rockwell’s illustrations since 1916 and was happy to publish the images. He spent the next 6 months producing 4 large paintings; these were then reproduced in the Post over 4 consecutive weeks, commencing 20 February 1943.  Contemporary writers had been chosen to provide essays on the ideas represented (e.g., the Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington wrote one to accompany Freedom of Speech). The images were a big hit with the public. Readers were invited to buy sets of reproductions for framing and 25,000 orders poured in. The Office of War Information, which had originally been so sniffy, did an about turn and asked for permission to print 2.5 million posters. The posters appeared in factories, stores, schools, public buildings – everywhere. In addition, the original paintings (which are now housed in the Norman Rockwell Museum) went on tour around the country in an exhibition which not only helped to explain the aims of the war, but also provided the focal point for a major war bond drive. Sponsored by the Saturday Evening Post and the U.S. Treasury Department, the exhibition visited 16 major cities, was viewed by 1,222,000 people and helped to sell more than $132 millions worth of bonds for the war effort. As Roosevelt later said to Rockwell, ‘I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms... I congratulate you… for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world.’

It's perhaps worth noting that Rockwell was only ever happy with two of his Freedom paintings (Speech and Worship), but remained dissatisfied with both Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear ('Neither of them has any wallop.'). He was also aware that, despite the popularity at home, Freedom from Want - Thanksgiving Dinner in particular, had not gone down well in Europe. Hardly surprising; the table groaning under the weight of food struck a rather discordant note in a war-torn Britain suffering food shortages.

A reproduction of another Rockwell image also appears in the exhibition – it accompanies a recording of the song Rosie the Riveter by the Four Vagabonds, and is very different from the more iconic image of Rosie (We can do it!) by J. Howard Miller. But take a look at Rockwell's rather strange and muscular Rosie when you visit. And if you think there's something familiar about her, you're right. Rockwell admired many artists and sometimes referenced the 'Old Masters' in his work. His 1943 illustration is modelled on Michaelangelo's Prophet Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel!

Rockwell quotes are taken from Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator. As told to Thomas Rockwell. Curtis Publishing Comany: Indianapolis, 1979. BL shelfmark: x955/3165

[C.H.]

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