This story was originally published by the Ohio History Connection on Nov. 25, 2016. It’s being republished here via a collaborative agreement.
In 1941, while war raged in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress, “present[ing] a vision in which the American ideals of individual liberties were extended throughout the world.”
This vision included freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom to worship in one’s own way, and freedom from want.
The speech, and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, ultimately led 47-year-old American artist Norman Rockwell to paint one of his most beloved series, Four Freedoms.
Rockwell had begun his career in art as a teenager, first attending art school when he was 14 and continuing on to the National Academy of Design (now known as the National Academy Museum and School) and, later, to the Art Students’ League of New York. He was hired at the age of 18 as an illustrator for Boys’ Life, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America.
Numerous magazine covers and other opportunities followed, and Rockwell’s career flourished.
By 1942, Rockwell was working for the Saturday Evening Post as an illustrator and also had a successful career as an artist.
During a visit to the Pentagon to discuss illustrations for war posters, the need for artwork to illustrate Roosevelt’s four freedoms was relayed to him. Rockwell saw this commission as the opportunity of a lifetime, and set out to complete the series. Seven months, and a weight loss of 10 pounds, later, Rockwell delivered his paintings.
Rockwell is known for portraying the common man in his artwork, and the Four Freedoms series is no different. He used members of his own community as models, placing them in settings that are familiar and comfortable.
In fact, the male model prominently featured in Freedom from Fear appears in all of the Four Freedoms pieces. His Freedom of Worship features multiple ethnicities and religions, and his Freedom of Speech highlights the power of a lone dissenting voice and was, in fact, Rockwell’s favorite of the four paintings.
The images, first commissioned by the Office of War Information, have been used for war posters, urging people to buy war bonds; as covers of the Saturday Evening Post; as U.S. postage stamps; and as book illustrations. Freedom from Want has been recreated by the Muppets, by Lego, by the cast of the television show “Modern Family,” and others.
Though none are above critique — Rockwell himself saw Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear as being “bland,” and critics have agreed — they remain beloved and iconic more than 60 years after their debut.
As we approach Thanksgiving here in the U.S., we would like to continue giving thanks for our blessings by sharing Four Freedoms with you, our Ohio Memory community.
We hope that, whether you are seeing them for the first time or are revisiting them, they give you peace, strength, joy, and pride in our country, and that they give you hope for a bright future.
Norman Rockwell was a 20th-century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States for their reflection of American culture. Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life scenarios he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine for more than four decades.
The Four Freedoms or Four Essential Human Freedoms is a series of four oil paintings that Rockwell produced in 1943 for reproduction in The Saturday Evening Post alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day. Later they were the highlight of a touring exhibition sponsored by the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Department of the Treasury.
The Four Freedoms theme was derived from the 1941 State of the Union Address by United States President Franklin Roosevelt in which he identified four essential human rights (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear) that should be universally protected.
The Office of War Information printed 4 million sets of Four Freedoms posters by the end of the war.
World War II was a massive conflict which involved a majority of the nations of the world, and became the most widespread and deadliest event in human history. It had profound ramifications politically and economically that lasted into the next century.
Armed conflict broke out in 1939, resulting primarily from issues and tensions not resolved by World War I, and spurred by desires of expansion. The Axis powers, led by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan, were opposed by the Allies, including France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States, although dozens of countries participated.
Gradually, the Allies asserted control, and victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, followed by victory over Japan in the Pacific theatre Sept. 2, 1945.
In addition to the loss of life among troops, civilian casualties numbered in the millions. Posters were used extensively throughout the war by countries on both sides for purposes such as propaganda, morale, and the broad dissemination of information.
The United States Office of War Information (OWI) was a U.S. government agency created during World War II to consolidate government information services. It operated from June 1942 until September 1945. It coordinated the release of war news for domestic use, and, using posters and radio broadcasts, worked to promote patriotism, warn about foreign spies and recruit women into war work.
The office also established an overseas branch, which launched a large scale information and propaganda campaign abroad.
The War Finance Committee was placed in charge of supervising the sale of all bonds, and the War Advertising Council promoted voluntary compliance with bond buying.
More than $250 million worth of advertising was donated during the first three years of the National Defense Savings Program. The government appealed to the public through popular culture.
Norman Rockwell’s painting series, the Four Freedoms, toured in a war bond effort that raised $132 million.