The Four Freedoms (1943) by Norman Rockwell

The Four Freedoms (1943) by Norman Rockwell

As you have probably gathered, I love to read and learn; which is why I adored my High School Library and the books it sheltered. Everyday after the final bell had rung I would leap up the stairway ascending two and three steps at a time, eager to dwell once again within the literary worlds. However, on one particular stairway landing I would always pause. Adorning the opposite wall, four posters never failed to steal a moment of my attention. Everyday I would acknowledge Norman Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms.

Having recently reread 1984, I am struck by a thought. In the book, Winston first encounters a poster of Big Brother on the wall opposite a stairway landing. I wonder whether the administrators of my High School were aware of the ironic placement of Rockwell’s works; surely my English teachers whose classrooms resided on that second floor must have been. After all, The Four Freedoms are a splendid example of American propaganda art.

The inspiration for these posters emerged from a speech. Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 addressed an apprehensive Congress on the necessity of war. In it he designated four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. These, FDR claimed, were the fundamental liberties of the United States that ought to be defended and, furthermore, applied throughout the world. Norman Rockwell dwelt long on Roosevelt’s words and endeavored to create art that would reflect these values. Believing the words “high-blown” Rockwell sought to “bring them down to Earth” eventually discovering their embodiment in the daily actions of America’s citizens.

Did Rockwell succeed? I don’t really know. Certainly the prints were extremely popular and displayed all throughout the nation. Still, I find them rather eerie. There’s an aura of idealism that envelops his images that just doesn’t ring true. I feel as if I have stumbled into the Uncanny Valley. I never get the sense of discord that I should when contemplating the freedoms. 

Take a look at “Freedom of Worship” All Christian, all white. Just as it should be in a simple, idealistic America. And my mind screams, FAKE, FAKE, FAKE. Would his posters have been so popular if Muslims had been depicted or considering the time period Jews? Freedom of Worship is controversial and there is nothing controversial about Christians praying in the U.S. The same holds true for the rest of the series. The posters construct an image of the U.S. that the majority would like to believe in but doesn’t really exist. Isn’t that the essence of propaganda?

That’s why I tend to agree with critics of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell is less of a fine artist and more of a populist. In my opinion, fine art opens the door to a new world, a world that might not be pleasant at all. It delights in conversation and controversy. Populist art on the other hand would prefer that door sealed shut, to paint over life and all its ugliness and reside in a room full of futile dreams. 

About Norman Rockwell

Born in 1894 in New York City, Norman Rockwell emerged on the art scene as a premier illustrator. His works often appeared on the covers of national magazines especially The Saturday Evening Post which published 321 of Rockwell’s paintings over his lifetime. He gained widespread recognition on the national stage with the publication of his Four Freedoms series. Rockwell became known for his depictions of small-town America and a purveyor of American idealism.

Resources

Norman Rockwell Museum – Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

National Archive – Four Freedoms

America in WWII – Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms

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