STOCKBRIDGE, MASS.- Returning to New England this fall after a 6-city international tour is the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to Norman Rockwell’s iconic depictions of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want. Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom explores how the 1943 paintings came to be embraced by millions of Americans, providing crucial aid to the War effort and taking their place among the most indelible images in the history of American art. The power of images to shape cultural narratives is revealed in this exhibition, which invites viewers to trace the origins and legacy of the Four Freedoms from the trials of the Great Depression and World War II to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the call for freedom today across racial, gender, ethnic, and religious lines.
Curated by James J. Kimble, Ph.D. of Seton Hall University and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the Museum’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Imagining Freedom encourages conversation about our most pressing social concerns, and invites visitors to consider how we can unite in the creation of a more humane world. The exhibition also encourages reflection on what the Four Freedoms mean in today’s social, political, and cultural landscape.
More than 40 Rockwell artworks are joined by paintings, drawings, photography, artifacts, and writings from artists across the decades in the expression of freedom, including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Mead Schaeffer, Arthur Szyk, Martha Sawyers, Langston Hughes, Thomas Lea, Boris Artzybasheff, and Denys Wortman, among others. Reimagining the Four Freedoms, a multi-media exhibition component, presents thought-provoking perspectives by 38 contemporary artists who explore society’s hopes and aspirations for a free and just world. Highlighted among them is a suite of striking recreations by Maurice Pops Peterson, who presents a vision of Rockwell’s art for a new age. Also on view is The Unity Project, a series of original poster illustrations by noted artists Mai Ly Degnan, Rudy Gutierrez, Anita Kunz, Tim O’Brien, Whitney Sherman, and Yuko Shimizu that are designed to inspire Americans to exercise their rights by voting in the upcoming national election.
Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt noted, “We are tremendously honored that so many people from around the world have enjoyed Rockwell’s work over the past 2+ years, as the exhibition traveled around the U.S. and to France, and now comes home for its finale in the Berkshires. Perhaps now more than ever, the exhibition offers timely reflection into how far our nation has come, yet how much farther we need to go in pursuit of universal human rights, inviting viewers to consider the concepts of common good, civic engagement, and civil discourse. It was exceptionally meaningful to have organized Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom and we are deeply grateful to our exhibition supporters, who made this project possible, and to our six museum partners who hosted and made this exhibition their own.”
Imagining Freedom includes an expansive array of artworks from the 1930s to today in addition to Rockwell’s celebrated Four Freedoms. Throughout, historical documents, photographs, videos, artifacts and immersive settings bring each era to life while drawing connections to our times. The exhibition is organized into 6 thematic sections, as follows:
The War Generation
The exhibition opens with a look at the social, economic, and political backdrop against which Roosevelt articulated the Four Freedoms. A recording of one of Roosevelt’s famous Fireside Chats, from April 14, 1938, enables visitors to hear about the nation’s problems from the President himself as he addresses the crushing struggles of the Great Depression, conveyed through newsreel footage and WPA photographs of Americans toiling to survive, by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others. Finally, a series of widely circulated original illustrations by Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Al Parker, and others speak to society’s core beliefs and reflect their moment in time.
This section turns to Roosevelt’s emphatic proclamation of the Four Freedoms as a rationale to enter the war, presented in his 1941 address to Congress. The speech and the subsequent incorporation of two of the Freedoms into the Atlantic Charter—evoked here through photographs, documents, and ephemera—was not able to rally the nation behind the war. In January 1943, two years after the Four Freedoms speech, the Office of War Information concluded that: “The four freedoms theme is a flop.” Enter the artists, Rockwell and others, whose published illustrations that were highly successful in gaining awareness and support for the war effort. These compelling pieces are featured here, including war-related artworks. Rockwell himself rarely depicted the war directly, opting instead for images of the home front.
Artistic Response to the Four Freedoms Ideals
Government’s efforts to promote these ideals to the public by encouraging artists across disciplines to interpret Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are documented with a range of tributes in the form of sculpture, paintings, prints, drawings, poetry, and music for the campaign. A group of powerful World War II propaganda posters in this section includes examples that addressed life on the home front, and that were intended to rally support for the troops and remind the public of its civic duty. A fully realized drawing for Rockwell’s 1943 Post illustration, Liberty Girl, and documentary photographs of women at work, are affirmations of the important role that American women played during World War II.
The artist’s Willie Gillis: Care Package and Willie Gillis: Convoy tell the story of one man’s army and experiences during World War II. Rockwell’s Refugee Thanksgiving presents a starkly different scene from the Thanksgiving dinner that he depicted in Freedom from Want, the most widely known and reappropriated of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms images.
Rockwell’s Four Freedoms
The story of Rockwell’s interpretation of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms for The Saturday Evening Post, and how they would come to be embraced by millions through mass publication and national tourculminates in this section. As stated in the New Yorker in 1945, the paintings were “received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art.” (Rufus Jarman, “Profiles,” The New Yorker, March 17, 1945, p. 34.)
Viewers can trace the story of the Four Freedoms War Bonds Show, which rallied the public in 16 cities nationwide. An archival newsreel of Rockwell explaining his direction and staging of his models for the series is on view, as well as letters from prominent figures, documentary photography, and props like the original jacket worn by the artist’s model in Freedom of Speech. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms continue to be among the artist’s most reproduced and even parodied images, appearing on posters, in textbooks, on a range of commercial goods, and widely, online.
Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom concludes by following the post-war outcomes of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. From their adoption by the United Nations to the ways in which they inspired figures of international renown, these aspirational ideals continue to resonate as we strive to make them tangible and accessible for all in our times.
The notion of the Four Freedoms has inspired dozens of national constitutions across the globe, yet Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration that the United States was willing to fight for Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—now considered a sublime moment in rhetorical history—did not turn out to be the immediate triumph envisioned by the President, and they continue to be ideals that many strive for today, both at home and throughout the world. Their odyssey did not end with FDR, nor with Rockwell.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed the late president’s legacy, ceaselessly touted FDR’s freedoms as an appropriate summation of democracy and human rights, and war weary nations agreed. Enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Four Freedoms are a testament that arose from the ashes of war to affirm the precious nature of freedom everywhere in the world.
Central to this section of the exhibition is Rockwell’s ongoing focus on the theme of human rights, bringing his Four Freedoms paintings to the post-war era. This includes his 1963 painting The Problem We All Live With, a powerful assertion on moral decency. Rockwell’s first assignment for Lookmagazine, it shows a six-year-old African American schoolgirl being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans, inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges.
Additionally, his Golden Rule and The Right to Know paintings and studies are among the works exploring the global and political themes that emerged during the artist’s personal and professional journey over time. As a member of NAACP, Rockwell felt freer to express his personal viewpoints after leaving the Post in 1963 to for work Look magazine. In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having to paint an African American person out of a group picture because the Post’s policy allowed for the depiction of people of color in service jobs only. At Look, Rockwell was freed from such restraints and was eager to correct the prejudices reflected in his previous work. The Problem We All Live With, Murder in Mississippi, and New Kids in the Neighborhood ushered in that new focus.