East City Art Reviews: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms

By Juliana Biondo on April 9, 2019

The freedom of speech. The freedom from want. The freedom to worship. The freedom from fear. These are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”, first stated in his eighth State of the Union address to Congress on January 6, 1941. His speech was intended to unify the American people against the Axis threat in World War II, and build support for the British and Allied troops. This exhibition, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms, seeks to contextualize these freedoms, illustrate American artist Norman Rockwell’s role in communicating them to the American public, and explore the expression of these freedoms today.

Enduring Ideals opens powerfully with Rockwell’s four iconic paintings of the freedoms squarely lined down the central wall.  Viewers immediately begin to view them after a brief, just-long-enough introductory wall text about Roosevelt’s 1941 speech. Smartly aligned to dominate the entirety of the wall, the paintings are presented in a way that honors their mastery as art objects, and visual tour-de-forces. The paintings speak for themselves before the historical context and social narratives explained in the rest of the exhibit begin to crystallize their meanings.

In the Freedom to Worship Rockwell employs a photographic perspective, actively cropping his subjects’ hands and faces, leaving no space for the eye to rest. Where one streak of light fiercely contouring a face ends, another begins. Where a wisp of grey hair trails off into the air, a soft yet dignified elderly eye starts. Each individual in this work is endowed with inward focusing energy. The clustering of partial figures, one on top another, each with a concentrated expression further bolsters the artists’ deep engagement and fascination with human conscience. (Figure 1) 

Figure 1. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom of Worship, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46″ x 35 ½”. Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved. www.curtislicensing.com

Freedom from Want uses a similarly photographic and cropped perspective. Young and elderly individuals sit around a Thanksgiving table. Their bodies are completely out of the frame while their facial expressions take firm hold just at the edges of the painting. One man at the bottom right even turns his head back to peek out at the viewer as if to ask, Would you like to join? An elderly couple stands at the head of the table to inspire a sense of familial leadership. They are about to place a large turkey on the table, to begin this most American of feasts. Conviviality, joy, laughter, food, light, togetherness, and contentedness prevail in this scene. While the food could be interpreted as extravagant, the table setting, house décor, and clothing of the elderly couple suggest an American home that is thoroughly middle-class and intended by the artist to be felt as relatable. It is the joy expressed among the figures and the food that embodies what it means to be free from want. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 ¾” x 35½”. Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved. www.curtislicensing.com

The third in the series, Freedom from Fear, is masterfully painted in a symphony of navy blues, crisp whites, and warm chestnut browns. Two children, a boy and a girl, are put to bed by their mother and father. The mother tenderly pulls the blanket up to their cherub faces while the father gazes down at his son, holding a paper by his side which reads “Bombings” and “Horror.” The children are so close to this doomful news, just inches away, yet simultaneously so unaware. It is this allowing of the innocent to be innocent; this distance from fears larger than a young mind could grasp, that is a freedom from fear. The children lay their heads down, close their eyes and settle in to a peaceful slumber in the tranquility of a protected home (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom from Fear, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 ¾” x 35½”. Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 13, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved. www.curtislicensing.com

What exactly is Rockwell trying to accomplish in his paintings? A deeper look at the final freedom painting, Freedom of Speech, and its respective first draft reveals the crux of Rockwell’s aim.

The image on the left (Figure 4) is the draft for Freedom of Speech. Rockwell depicts a singular man standing up, and leaning forward onto the chairs in front of him. The man is dressed simply: a light blue collared shirt is layered underneath a worn chocolate brown jacket with a waist clasp. The jacket is left unbuttoned, casually falling open. The man’s weight is heavy and his wrists cock downward at ninety-degree angles. His face is long while his jawbone is clearly etched with thick shadowed lines. His gaze is direct and upward in a way to suggest a forthcoming declaratory statement. The seated individuals surrounding him are in a state of equal suspense. All, aside from one elderly gentleman in the lower left corner, are gesturing to communicate their dedicated attention to him. Yet, the standing man blends into his surroundings. While he is physically elevated from the others, he is just one of many. From a formal point of view, the color choices Rockwell made yield this man’s figure as one that is fighting to distinguish itself amongst all of the other neutral, equally saturated hues in the painting. The resulting understanding of this scene is rendered as very straightforward: this is simply a depiction of a communal gathering.

Figure 4. A color study for Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech painting. Image from public domain.

The image on the right (Figure 5) is the final version of the Freedom of Speech painting. This work projects a man who stands tall in a crowd of people such that his height towers above the others. A black background emphasizes the figure’s stature, and his solitary nature. Seen from below, the man takes on the air of a divine orator, despite his homely attire. A light source coming from his right grazes his face to reveal crystal clear eyes and lined but resilient skin. His mouth parts open and his entire body seems to lean back in preparation to speak. A man in the bottom right corner of the painting also leans back with his eyebrows raised and head tilted, straining to look and listen to the man behind him. The speaker is not lost in the crowd, nor is he ignored. Instead, he becomes a larger than life symbol for that which is great, bold, dignified and quintessentially American.

Figure 5. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom of Speech, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 ¾” x 35½”. Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved. www.curtislicensing.com

The changes from draft to final painting reveal Rockwell’s experimentation with perspective, composition, and color to expertly unpack Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms;” freedoms that were, according to Rockwell, “so darn high-blown” such that depicting them was a task “fit for Michelangelo.” We witness in his drafting process how Rockwell seeks not a quotidian narrative and community scene but instead a robust multi-faceted icon for freedom.

The exhibition continues to chronologically reconstruct the time period in which the paintings were conceived until one somewhat sudden injection of contemporary politics occurs. Four bas-relief sculptures, created by artist Deborah Samia in 2018, pull the exhibition into the present. As stated by the artist, the bas-reliefs recreate the Four Freedoms paintings by replacing the subjects “with those living in the margins of our society.” A female, African American night janitor replaces the central figure in Freedom of Speech, while non-Western religions such as Buddhism and Islam are included in Freedom to Worship, and an African American family is featured in Freedom from Want. The effect of these additions and substitutions is notable.  Samia’s works become inextricably linked to the societal context in which their subjects are marginal actors. Her reliefs no longer focus our attention on the what of the freedom in discussion, but instead the who of the freedom. In changing the subjects, the artist asks us to see these works through the lens of our American race relations, religions, and identity. A reading of the works as symbols for supra-national human freedom takes a secondary role. Samia’s works create an interesting foil to Rockwell’s paintings at this point in the exhibition. Her focus on contemporary socio-political topics within the American context shed light on how much Rockwell, specifically in his Freedoms paintings (unlike his images depicting the Civil Rights Era), sought to elevate the conversation about freedom to a level of global humanity. Rockwell was not seeking to give voice to a discourse that was strictly national in its relevance. He used canonical American images less as a way to represent a strictly American identity than as a lens for viewing what he believed to be a global conversation about American-inspired, internationally relevant moral aims. (Figure 6a and 6b)

Figure 6a. Deborah Samia, Freedom of Speech (A Tribute to Norman Rockwell), Hydrocal Plaster, reinforced with Fiberglass, 2017. All rights reserved.


Figure 6b. Deborah Samia, Freedom from Want (A Tribute to Norman Rockwell), Hydrocal Plaster, reinforced with Fiberglass, 2017. All rights reserved.

The exhibition continues on the second floor with Rockwell’s rejection of the Vietnam War, engagement with Civil Rights, and concludes by returning to a larger display of contemporary art that directly reacted to Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. Refuge by Amy Wike visualizes one phrase from Roosevelt’s speech in Morse code in four different languages: English, Somali, Arabic, and French. Somali, Arabic and French serve to represent the three countries that send the highest number of refugees to America: Somalia, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The piece uses Morse code to allude to the complexity of translations, cross-cultural communication, movement, and linguistic codes. (Figure 7)

Figure 7. Amy Wike, Refuge, yarn, 2017. All rights reserved.

Untitled III by Celine Browning is a sculptural work showing the American flag cut, crumpled, and braided in a way as to completely disfigure it. The flag falls outside of the frame, drooping down as if it is melting. Looking at the image, one sees a symbol that is not unrecognizable, but that is totally transformed. While the associations the symbol of the American flag may call to mind are still accessible, the validity of those associations has been called into question by the ruining of the traditional aesthetic of the symbol. (Figure 8)

Figure 8. Contemporary artworks on display in Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. Photo by Sydney Grey / The George Washington University. (Pictured at right: Celine Browning, Untitled III (Capture the Flag), 2017.)

It is hard to isolate only one of FDR’s Four Freedoms in many of the contemporary artworks on view. Instead, each work seems to depict how the freedoms are intertwined–more nearly inextricably linked—with each other; how their chemistry as a harmonized unit of freedoms makes them such a dynamic and stalwart force in the ongoing forging of American morality, and which are that much more devastating and corrosive to society when absent.

This also yields an extremely powerful meditation on the “Four Freedoms” today, more so than Samia’s bas-reliefs from the first floor. Instead of a swapping out of characters that results in a somewhat narrow reach due to a preoccupation with national identity narratives, Refuge and Untitled III open the door for a viewer to see beyond domestic narratives. Just as Rockwell elevated his renderings of the “Freedoms” to question what it meant to strive for action within a philosophically rigorous definition of human morality at large, so Browning and Wike do as they both ask not who is America, but what is America.

With this conclusion to the exhibition, the viewer may ask: are the “Four Freedoms” still strong international aspirations worthy of their elevated moral status, embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations? Or, have these “Freedoms” actually become most noticeable on a more domestic, national, and American scale because of their current-day fading? Perhaps the showing of this exhibition is alarmingly meaningful, as the those freedoms most spoken about, revisited, and questioned are, ironically, often the hardest to feel.

GW Textile Museum Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. On view through April 29, 2019. Museum Hours: Monday: 11 AM–5 PM, Tuesday: Closed, Wednesday–Thursday: 11 AM–7 PM, Friday: 11 AM–5 PM, Saturday: 10 AM–5 PM and Sunday: 1–5 PM