Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Four Freedoms

Norman Rockwell at the opening of the Four Freedoms tour, 27 April 1943 (Photo)

Norman Rockwell at the opening of the Four Freedoms tour, 27 April 1943 (Photo)

Norman Rockwell tossed in his bed, wondering how he could capture the Four Freedoms on canvas. The artiste Wanted to base a series of pictures on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inspiring Four Freedoms speech. When most Of Europe had fallen to Adolf Hitler, the president had called on Americans to help stop tyrants such as the German dictator, and he. had Spoken of the freedoms all people deserve.

Rockwell reread President Roosevelt's Words: "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 every where in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear anywhere in the world."

Eleven months after President Roosevelt gave his speech, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States joined the fight. Now American soldiers were overseas, embroiled in the battles of World War II, and the war was not going well for the Allies. Rockwell wanted to paint the Four Freedoms and offer them as his contribution to [he war effort. He hoped his pictures would help Americans understand what they were fighting for.

Other artists had been commissioned by the government to paint murals, stamps, and prints of the Four Freedoms. They had created lofty images. That wasn't Rockwell's style. But President Roosevelt's language was so high and noble. How could Norman Rockwell portray those freedoms in concrete terms? "I continued to stew over an idea, Rockwell wrote, I tried this and that. Nothing worked."

While he mulled over the problem of the Four Freedoms, he painted another illustration for a magazine cover, went to a town meeting, and attended a Grange supper. One night he went to bed, still struggling to come up with an idea. "As the minutes ticked by, all empty and dark, I suddenly remembered how Jim Edgerton had stood up in a town meeting and said something that everybody else disagreed with. 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 neighbors as models."

Rockwell was so excited that he jumped out of bed and bicycled over to tell his friend and fellow illustrator Mead Schaeffer, even though it was three o'clock in the morning. In the next few days, Rockwell made full-size color sketches of what he intended to do. When he and Schaeffer headed to Washington to offer the sketch ideas to the government.

But the government wasn't interested. Rockwell's and Schaeffer's spirits flagged as they were turned down by one official after another. The war was going badly, and government officials were overworked. The Undersecretary of the War Department told Rockwell; "We'd love to print your Four Freedoms, but we can't.… We just don't have the time to spare to arrange it. I think they'd be a fine contribution. We'd be delighted if someone would publish them."

Discouraged, Rockwell and his friend Schaeffer returned home, taking a side trip to see the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, Ben Hibbs. Rockwell, had other pictures to sell, and Hibbs often bought Rockwell's illustrations. Hibbs asked Rockwell about his trip to Washington, and when he showed the editor his sketches of the Four Freedoms, Hibbs got excited. "You've got to do them for us.… Drop everything else. Just do the Four Freedoms."

Rockwell and his friend returned to Vermont, and Rockwell set to work. But things didn't go smoothly. Rockwell painted the first freedom, Freedom of Speech, four times. "I practically finished it twice, finding each time when I had just a few days' work left that it wasn't right." He had started by showing an entire town meeting, but there were too many people in the picture. In the end, he focused on a single man speaking in front of his neighbors.

Then came Freedom of Worship. Rockwell's first sketch was of a country barbershop. A Jew sat in the barber chair being shaved by a Protestant while a Catholic priest and a Negro waited their turns, all of them enjoying one another's company. But the picture seemed to offend the friends who stopped by to see it. "Priests don't look like that," Catholics told Rockwell. His Jewish and Negro Friends didn't like the picture either. Rod well discarded that picture, started another, and tossed that one aside. Finally he painted a varied group of people, hands raised in prayer, each worshiping God in his or her own way.

After that, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear came easily. He based them on his original color sketches. For Freedom from Want, Rockwell painted his own family's Thanksgiving turkey with a family gathered around it. "One of the few times," he Said, "I've ever eaten the model." For Freedom from Fear, he painted parents tucking their children safely into bed.

Rockwell brought the finished paintings to the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. The Post printed the series, and they were a tremendous hit. Subscribers requested posters, and the government asked if they could use the images. Eventually the paintings were taken on a nationwide tour. Over a million people came to see Rockwell's Four Freedoms. Four million posters of the paintings were printed. The publicity they generated helped sell over $132 million worth of war bonds to help fund the war effort.

Americans loved the paintings, but Norman Rockwell wasn't completely satisfied with them. "I never liked Freedom from Fear or… Freedom from Want. Neither of them has any wallop," he said. He worried that Freedom from Fear was "rather smug," that the painting suggested Americans could put their children to bed without fear while families were being bombed in Europe. And he saw Freedom from Want as a portrayal of overabundance at a time when families in war-torn nations were going hungry. "I think the two I had the most trouble with--Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship--have more of an impact, say more, better." The art critics didn't always agree with Rockwell. In fact, some felt that Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want were the strongest of the four paintings. You can judge for yourself.

But there's no doubt that Rockwell's Four Freedoms made a major contribution to the war effort. As editor Ben Hibbs said, "Those four pictures 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 which they conveyed so forcefully and so beautifully." The Four Freedoms are some of the best known and best loved paintings in America. And their message is just as strong today as it was when they were painted--Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear for everyone, everywhere in the world.

By Linda Crotta Brennan



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