Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms"

Relive the story behind Norman Rockwell's famous "Four Freedoms," on view for a limited time at Gracie Mansion in celebration of the executive mansion's 75th anniversary as home to New York City's mayor.

On the evening January 6, 1941, with much of Europe, Asia, and North Africa roiled in battle, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered one of the most influential and enduring speeches of his presidency. Sensing that American military isolationism was increasingly untenable in the face of global conflict, President Roosevelt tacitly made the case for America’s entry into war by appealing to the nation’s moral and ideological sensibilities. Given to the joint session of the 77th United States Congress, the president’s State of the Union address laid out a vision for a new world order founded on four basic human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt’s words offered a countering vision to the rigid totalitarianism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, and worked to inspire American citizens as well as those in subjugated nations under the thumb of fascist terror. By the end of that year, the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States’ entry into World War II. This effectively curtailed a national tradition of isolationism that had, with some exceptions, largely dictated American foreign policy since the country’s inception. As the United States mobilized for total war, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms became a widely publicized explanation for the sacrifices every American was asked to make to support the fight against the Axis powers.

Working from his home in Arlington, Vermont, one of America’s most famous and celebrated artists labored towards visualizing the Four Freedoms in a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, to accompany articles on the subject. Attempting to crystallize the purpose for American loss of blood and treasure through his series, Norman Rockwell found the task at once uplifting and Herculean. “At the time I couldn’t concentrate,” he would later recount, as the Four Freedoms “occupied the better part of my brain.” His series, he hoped, would serve a purpose “bigger than a war poster,” and “make some statement about why the country was fighting the war.” Rockwell succeeded by every measure.

Known for his striking yet simple depictions of everyday life in the American heartland, Rockwell eschewed grandiose and abstract conceptions of the Four Freedoms in his series. Rather, he sought to “take the Four Freedoms out of the noble language and put them in terms everybody [could] understand.” Struggling with how to translate Roosevelt’s lofty rhetoric into images for the American everyman, Rockwell spent months grappling with the task at hand.

While ruminating over advice his teachers gave him to “live in the pictures” he created, Rockwell remembered a recent town meeting when a neighbor, Jim Edgerton, spoke out against a popular plan for the building of a new school. Despite the unpopularity of his position, neighbors allowed Edgerton to deliver his remarks. “My gosh,” Rockwell realized, “There it is. Freedom of speech.” The images of the other freedoms mentioned by Roosevelt soon populated his mind. Rockwell began to paint these abstract ideas of American values in particularly American contexts. The Four Freedoms were “depicted just as they were lived, experienced, and at the same time learned.”

Rockwell’s portrayals of the Four Freedoms were finalized by the end of January 1943, despite periods of immense self-doubt and creative block. “Freedom of Speech and Expression” portrayed Rockwell’s neighbor Jim Edgerton registering his opposition to building a new school at the aforementioned town meeting. “Freedom of Worship” depicted individuals of every age, race, and religion grouped together in “prayerful contemplation,” basking in an almost heavenly glow. “Freedom from Want” offered the image of a typical American family (actually Rockwell’s own) taking part in a bountiful Thanksgiving feast. “Freedom from Fear,” finally, showed a mother and father tucking their children into bed peacefully. Under the father’s arm, a newspaper with a headline relaying news of the violence in Europe was plainly visible, which provided a stark contrast to the harmony surrounding the American family.

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms proved worthy of even President Roosevelt’s approval. “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms,” the president wrote to the artist. In a more formal tone, President Roosevelt’s open letter accompanying the published paintings in the Saturday Evening Post lauded the images of the “staunchly American values contained in the rights of free speech and free worship and our goals of freedom from want and fear.” FDR even suggested that the Post articles accompanying Rockwell’s paintings be translated into foreign languages and presented to leaders of allied nations.

Beginning on February 20, 1943, the Post ran one Rockwell painting in each of its four successive issues, all of which were warmly received by the American public. Seeking to capitalize on the paintings’ effectiveness, the Office of War Information (OWI) decided to print 2,500,000 posters of the images. Soon, the OWI was receiving over 2,000 daily requests for the posters.

The OWI also decided to include the original paintings in their touring War-Bond-selling campaign, which was co-sponsored by the Saturday Evening Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Rockwell’s creations were the centerpiece of the campaign, titled the "Second War Loan Drive,” which built on the success of the first war bond drive started in 1942. The show, given the motto “Keep the Light of Freedom Burning,” traversed the United States, attracted over 1.2 million people, and raised almost $133 million in war bonds. Not only had Rockwell articulated America’s purpose for entering the war, but he had also helped to finance the nation’s tremendous goal to topple fascism.

Over seven decades later, Rockwell’s images remain an enduring testament to President Roosevelt’s vision of universal human freedom. For a limited time, in celebration of its 75th anniversary as the home of New York City’s mayor, Gracie Mansion is displaying the original versions of Rockwell’s "Four Freedoms," on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum. Help to sustain the legacies of FDR and Norman Rockwell by visiting Gracie Mansion and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park today!

In celebration of Gracie Mansion's 75th anniversary as the home of New York City's mayor, visit the executive mansion today to view Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."

In celebration of Gracie Mansion's 75th anniversary as the home of New York City's mayor, visit the executive mansion today to view Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."