Norman Rockwell and the Story of the “Four Freedoms”

On January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt made his State of the Union address, aired against the backdrop of London smoking from an especially horrific German air raid earlier that evening.

Roosevelt summoned the forces of American democracy saying,

Freedom of Speech painting by Norman Rockwell

“Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell

“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, translated into world terms, 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, translated into world terms, means a world-wide 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 of Worship painting by Norman Rockwell

“Freedom of Worship” by Norman Rockwell

President Roosevelt’s address was powerful and would especially grow in relevance several months later with the attack on Pearl Harbor. But what would materialize over the following three years would imbue that powerful declaration with life.

In 1942 over a period of 6 months, Norman Rockwell painted what would become known as the “Four Freedoms” series.

Using friends in his Vermont community as models for the oil paintings, Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. He cast a vision of America’s core values by girding it in the familiar, intimate clothes and shoes of his neighbors. The Saturday Evening Post published them in the early spring of 1943.

Freedom from Want painting by Norman Rockwell

“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell

Paul L. Brandt, a man from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote Rockwell concerning his Freedom of Speech paintings,

“There is just enough in that canvas for our purposes, but I can feel and see the parts of the room that lie beyond your boundaries—we’re all there, the deep sincerity of purpose that blacks out personal inhibitions and timidity, the old chappie is there who speaks out at every meeting, the chap who relishes the taste of five syllable words and the decorative rhetoric; yes, and in another corner is the old lady who is always called upon to express her sentiments….”1

Brandt was just one of many who saw themselves and their lives echoed in Rockwell’s paintings.

Freedom from Fear painting by Norman Rockwell

“Freedom from Fear” by Norman Rockwell

Rockwell clad Roosevelt’s “freedoms,” and, in doing so, made them emotionally and socially accessible to Americans from all regions.

On April 27 1943, the U.S. Department of the Treasury launched a tour of the paintings as part of their war-bond drive. The “Four Freedoms” war bond show raised $3.2 million in war-bonds and the paintings were viewed by over 1.2 million Americans.2 Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” became more than just posters and stamps—they became the heart of America’s cry for freedom during the second world war.

Rockwell clothed the four freedoms in story.

His paintings contributed to a hopeful collective consciousness in America during a time otherwise plagued by weariness, sorrow, and fear.

1 For the full letter and additional commentary, see Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Mecklenburg and McCarthy, p 114.

2; Telling Stories, Mecklenburg and McCarthy: p 115.