A Closer Look at Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

Detail of Freedom of Speech, 1943, by Norman Rockwell. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943. (Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.
His pictures of plain people in everyday life are sublime, not subversive.

On June 1, I wrote the first part of my piece on Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms pictures. Done for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, these scenes are part of the visual vocabulary we carry in our heads when we think about what it means to be an American and to live in America. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, which together are freedom of conscience, as well as freedoms from fear and want are more broadly achieved in America than anywhere else in the world, or at any time in human history.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., has been touring the Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), which the museum owns. The show, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms, opened recently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Caen in Normandy as part of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on June 6. Next, it will go to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, then to the Denver Art Museum, and back to the Norman Rockwell Museum in September 2020.

It’s a brilliant idea to show these pictures in Caen at this time. Caen was a center of fighting in the hours and days after the invasion started. The French in Normandy have never forgotten the American role in their liberation but, for younger audiences, a thorough presentation of the Four Freedoms pictures is timely. The show does a great job situating Rockwell’s work in the context of its time and establishing the relevance of these works today. It’s a show about the past, the present, and, for young French people, the future. With so much social and political stress in France today, the show — and the Four Freedoms — are effective primers on the civic ideals all decent people want to achieve.

These pictures, based on a speech Franklin Roosevelt made, became the visual mission statement for America’s war effort. I think it’s a good time to give them a close look.

There’s another reason, though. An art-historian friend told me a few weeks ago that he used Freedom of Speech in a seminar at a high-achieving, selective college. He showed a slide of the picture, which students didn’t recognize. That’s fair. They’re young. World War II, Rockwell, Roosevelt, and bond drives are ancient history. I get that. History is badly taught, almost everywhere. That’s a very sad given. We let it continue at our peril.

What disturbed me was how students interpreted the picture, knowing nothing about it. They thought Freedom of Speech depicted a white supremacist meeting.

When I heard this, I was speechless, freedom to speak or no freedom.

In thinking about this, my take is that the students saw that the subjects were mostly plain people who worked with their hands. Even the tie-wearers in Freedom of Speech weren’t dressed by Brooks Brothers. Everyone is neat, but they’re unadorned, untanned, uncool. They’d look and feel awkward in the faculty lounge, the tech start-up, or that chic financial-services firm. These students — taken collectively, they’re our future leaders — assumed the worst about these hard-working, most unassuming people.

Yet another reason to revisit Rockwell. The biggest change in Rockwell’s working method when he went to Vermont was his new use of models who weren’t professionals. “Now my pictures grew out of the world around me, the everyday life of my neighbors,” he said. “I didn’t fake anymore.” His range of characters widened, too, since he wasn’t confined to the pool of professionals available in New York. He recruited models from the square dances, from factories in Arlington, from shops, gas stations, and farms. Most of Rockwell’s models were working-class. Some were self-employed, among them Carl Hess, the model for the central figure in Freedom of Speech. He owned his own business, a gas station and auto-repair shop. He pumped the gas and fixed the cars himself. He’d never worn a suit until he went on the nationwide war-bond tour with the Four Freedoms paintings in 1944. He never wore one again.

Standing like a skyscraper, Rockwell’s Hess is spare and taut. Rockwell thought he looked like the beardless Lincoln. That’s why he used him for a model. He could not have imagined how much Gary Cooper would resemble Hess a few years later in High Noon. By 1952, when the movie came out, Freedom of Speech was known everywhere.

Left: Freedom of Speech, 1943, by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.

Right: Freedom from Want, 1943, by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.

Arlington was hardly riven by income inequality. It was a farm town, mostly working-class, with some small businesses and a few factories. There was no suburban-style track housing, no affluent neighborhoods, no country clubs, and no private schools. Vermonters in the 1930s and early 1940s would wryly ask, “Depression . . . what depression?” Vermont didn’t waltz unscathed through the worst calamity ever endured by the American economy. The quip only acknowledged that Vermont was in a chronic slump that started around the 1850s. That’s when the sheep bubble burst, ending a time when a million merino sheep grazed its deforested hills. Vermont had only one town — Burlington — with a population of more than 25,000. No other town came close. Its population in 1940 had been flat since the early 19th century. Vermont produced marble, lumber, maple syrup, and milk, all hit hard by the collapse in commodity prices that started in 1930.

Poverty was widespread but different in Vermont. No one went hungry. People hunted for food. Garden patches were ubiquitous. The worst canard surrounding the Four Freedoms concerns the Freedom from Want picture. During the war, Europeans who saw it resented the scene of well-fed Americans enjoying a feast. Famine was a Continental calling card. Of course, it didn’t happen by accident. Europe brought its legion of miseries on itself, but that’s beside the point. In the 1960s and 1970s, many American intellectuals found the picture smug. Amidst the Thanksgiving prosperity, there’s no guilt.

The meal in Freedom from Want was almost all locally sourced, to use Slow Food lingo. No one went hungry in a place where about 30 percent of the people lived on farms. Hunting then and now is ubiquitous. In the 1940s, most people still lived off the land, close to abundant food and water but not to opportunities to get rich. The table and food in the picture are actually modest.

Rockwell didn’t look at his characters or his models as remote. He often knew them, though sometimes he didn’t. He conceived of a theme and a composition and shopped for people who looked the part. Generally, his instructions were simple. “Be yourself,” he usually said. It’s easier, and possibly instinctive, for a more cosmopolitan artist to invest in country people a heroic, grim persistence or a tinge of tragedy at one extreme or buffoonery on the other. They’re hard for the academic mind obsessed by “isms” to fathom. Rockwell’s pictures aren’t subversive or ironic. His figures aren’t gleaners or ragpickers or serfs or slaves. They’re not oppressed, marginalized, downtrodden, or manic. It’s not that complexity or difficulty didn’t exist in the lives of Rockwell’s people. They just processed it and expressed it differently. The best solace was silence. Silence is a trait Vermonters have honed to a fine art. So is stoicism. So is fatalism. And no one thought of himself as a victim.

Rockwell’s Freedom of Worship picture isn’t set in a house of worship. Unlike the three other pictures, it has no setting at all but is a stacked array of bust shots similar to what he used often in the 1960s. Rockwell was criticized for using a stereotype of Jews — the “Tevye type,” to portend Fiddler on the Roof. Walter Squiers, the model for the figure, was a Methodist carpenter but, with some costuming, looked the part. I’m not convinced the figure is even meant to represent a Jew but, rather, a generic “exotic religion” type. It looks like a Muslim kufi to me. In any event, it’s a good stab at ecumenicalism.

It’s also Rockwell’s first use of an African-American subject. He wanted a look that was more diverse than Arlington and the surrounding towns could provide. It’s the only time in his Vermont years that he hired a model, in New York, for the figure in the upper-left-hand corner. In the 1960s, Rockwell’s civil-rights scenes essentialized the issues at hand and moved public opinion.

Left: Freedom of Worship, 1943, by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.

Right:Freedom from Fear, 1943, by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 13, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved.

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms pictures concern fundamental, timeless values, like protecting and feeding one’s family, praying to one’s God, respecting the beliefs of others, and preserving a destiny and purpose shared by everyone. Violence, misery, brutality, and hate were, to him, situational rather than enduring, eruptions to be suppressed and defeated rather than balls and chains always with us and practiced by oppressors against victims. Yes, the pictures are propaganda, but they’re far from atrocity propaganda. Rockwell came of age during the First World War, when atrocity propaganda ruled the war-marketing roost. After the war, investigation committees established that many of the German atrocities arousing the public in 1915 or 1916 never happened. Angry and jaded, Americans weren’t in the mood to buy another batch.

Rockwell’s pictures were a more oblique type of propaganda, drawing on the head as much as on the heart. He often sought the spot where the two are in equipoise, a spot Vermonters would say is called “common sense.” Roosevelt was criticized for a Wilsonian idealism, presenting the Four Freedoms as abstractions, as universal. Rockwell made them concrete and placed them in the context of everyday life, at home, at a local meeting, and at church or a synagogue. He presented them — faith, democracy, peace, and family — as things for which a man could die on the battlefield. And there’s no anger or resentment in Rockwell’s pictures.

In Freedom of Speech, a single figure, with rough hands, wearing a bomber jacket and a flannel shirt, speaks at a meeting. He looks very much like a man who works with his hands. He’s surrounded by better-dressed people listening attentively. He’s Everyman, and he lives in a classless society, at least at that moment. His vote counts as much as anyone’s.

The picture is a rarity for Rockwell. It shows an event that actually happened. His inspiration was a meeting that occurred in Arlington in 1941. It’s a Town Meeting, the distinctly New England form of local government in which the town “legislature” isn’t a small, elected town council but a meeting of every voter in town. Every citizen is a legislator. Jim Edgerton, a farmer and Rockwell’s closest neighbor, spoke against the construction of a new high school in Arlington. He was concerned about the impact on his property taxes. He’d just lost most of his cows to hoof-and-mouth disease. His income had plummeted earlier through the collapse of milk prices. The crowd listened politely, yes, and then outvoted him. He didn’t cry about a rigged election. He wasn’t a sore loser. Like every Vermonter, he was practical. He got a job on the construction crew that built the new high school.

When it came to creating Freedom of Speech, Rockwell didn’t want Edgerton as a model. He looked too much like Charles Lindbergh. The Lindbergh look wasn’t compromised in Rockwell’s mind because of the America First movement of the 1940s. The look, to Rockwell, was too Arrow Shirt Man handsome, too blond, too blue-eyed. Hess looked the spartan, on-edge part.

Rockwell originally conceived a different composition. The central figure was more animated, in mid-performance, his body moving. Rockwell, like most people, was a moviegoer. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, from 1939, climaxed with Senator Smith’s angry speech orchestrated by director Frank Capra, and it seems Rockwell quoted it, though in Freedom of SpeechAbe Lincoln in Illinois, from 1940, starring Raymond Massey, might have been another source. The young Lincoln, like the speaker in Freedom of Speech, was not a polished speaker but moved by strong, deeply held feeling. In Freedom of Speech, the central figure is not in the middle of speaking but in that split second of thinking and speaking. The scene is still, hieratic, like an altarpiece. Thought and speech — thought’s public projection — are both combined and spiritualized. The figure looks upward. The scene is filled with ears.

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) (Columbia Pictures, RKO/Photofest)

Freedom of Worship is the only one with neither a discernable setting nor even a whiff of narrative. He used props like rosary beads, books, and the single piece of exotic headgear to evoke religious difference, but the most effective elements are the hands. Rockwell was an unusually effective interpreter of hands. Some of the hands in this picture are in prayer. One figure’s hand is in chin-scratching “hmmm, I’m still thinking about this” mode. An old woman’s hands are wrinkled and worn rough. Her wedding ring looks like she’s never taken it off, a nod to the durability of her marriage. Hands are for praying, but they’re also for doing.

If the ears in Freedom of Speech propose respectful linking, the hands in Freedom of Worship link religious belief and feeling with practical, everyday use. To have faith means to live it, to make it real. Faith and religious belief might be considered private and internal, but Rockwell made it real. His use of weather-beaten Arlington models made faith a part of the work-a-day world. “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience” is the unnecessary, distracting headline Rockwell painted, one of the few times he used a device seen in newspapers and magazines, where stories have titles. I think Rockwell reached for an analogy he didn’t need. Freedom of Worship has the feel of church stained glass, which often has figures arranged in registers and a title, usually a line from the New Testament.

Rockwell grew over the years to dislike Freedom from Fear. That’s the picture he felt was smug. He called it “smug” in his autobiography because children in London and elsewhere in Europe were dying in nighttime air raids. He was too hard on himself. Yes, it’s not Guernica. The father figure holds a newspaper signaling the storyline. “BOMBINGS” and “HORRORS” convey the state of most of the world. It’s the front page of the Bennington Banner, the local daily in Bennington County.

It’s the most simply composed picture in the series, with only four figures. Its palette is limited. The setting is modest. It’s structured by a handful of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals. Rockwell’s studio was filled with books about art, and more than most illustrators, he was immersed in art history. This picture is his Whistler moment, with muted blues and yellows, vaguely japonisme wallpaper, lots of diagonals, and figures more languid than sternly upright.

Is it smug? It’s not about atrocity or danger. It’s about gratitude.

Freedom of Speech became the most renowned of the Four Freedoms pictures, if for no other reason than the American Civil Liberties Union’s use of it as its flagship image during the time it had an expansive view of freedom rather than a view tethered to “it depends on whether we approve.” Freedom from Want is by far the most ubiquitous and most parodied. All the takes I’ve seen are a mix of fun and serious, including a version from 2010 by Matt Wuerker in which every figure except the turkey has a device, including Grandma, who speaks in an earpiece while she delivers the goods.

When I was a curator, I felt less bound by theories and categories than most. At the Clark Art Institute, there were only three curators. We had to know a lot not only about our narrow specialties but the scope of the collection, which ranged from Old Master prints to Renoir to Homer to Sargent and to silver and Sèvres porcelain.

This helped develop my catholic taste and broad-mindedness in judging good and bad art. I grew to admire Robert Rosenblum, the art historian and curator whose scholarly and aesthetic sensibilities were eclectic, convivial, and humane. He saw quality in many things, breaking barriers along the way. In the late 1990s, he was among the leaders in Rockwell’s revival. He thought academics who deplored Rockwell were prigs and faddists and were themselves to be deplored. To love Rockwell, and to love all good art, as Rosenblum said, “all you have to do is relax and look and think.”

The Four Freedoms show gives the best possible platform for understanding what a superb image maker Rockwell was.

Editor’s Note: Brian T. Allen serves on the Four Freedoms at 75 Committee in southwestern Vermont


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