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Norman Rockwell's Images of Freedom Revisited 75 Years Later

Norman Rockwell drew inspiration from FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech for these illustrations, published in The Saturday Evening Post. (J.Taboh/VOA)
Norman Rockwell drew inspiration from FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech for these illustrations, published in The Saturday Evening Post. (J.Taboh/VOA)
Norman Rockwell's Images of Freedom Revisited 75 Years Later
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Norman Rockwell is considered one of America's most beloved artists. Rockwell painted average Americans at work, at play and at war. He captured simple, but powerful details of everyday life in the United States.

Some of his paintings were recently in Washington, DC. The show marked the 75th anniversary of his most well-known works.

Helping tell America’s story

Most Americans became familiar with Rockwell’s paintings through his hundreds of cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. The Post was published during the first half of the 20th century.

Norman Rockwell painted his first illustration for the weekly magazine in 1916. He was only 22 years old at the time.

Rockwell believed the Post to be the “greatest show window in America” for an illustrator.

Over the next 47 years, another 320 of his images appeared on the magazine’s cover, and hundreds of his other paintings were in other magazines.

Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms illustrations were published in The Saturday Evening Post. (J.Taboh/VOA)
Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms illustrations were published in The Saturday Evening Post. (J.Taboh/VOA)

Four Freedoms

Among Rockwell's most well-known works is a group of four paintings called Four Freedoms. The name comes from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State of the Union message to Congress on January 6, 1941.

In his speech, Roosevelt talked about his “Four Freedoms” ideals… the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. Roosevelt believed these four ideas were the basis of democracy and should be the rights of all people.

Democracy for all

He told American these freedoms were something to fight for as World War II was starting in Europe. Historians say he was trying to prepare Americans for the conflict. On December 8, 1941, Congress declared war on Japan, a day after Japanese forces attacked the U.S. base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Rockwell’s decision to paint FDR’s Four Freedoms came from his desire to help the war effort.

The four paintings were among many other Rockwell works shown recently at The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.

“Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want, are ideals as powerful today as they were for Americans who fought in World War II,” noted John Wetenhall. He is the director of the museum.

Enduring ideals

The exhibit was called “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.” It was a project of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Four Freedoms are part of the permanent collection.

Stephanie Plunkett is the deputy director and chief curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

She told VOA that “Rockwell’s Four Freedoms are among the most recognizable images in American history.”

“He was at the height of his career … when magazines like The Saturday Evening Post provided both information and entertainment to a (large) audience,” she added.

The paintings became a national sensation in early 1943 when they first appeared in the weekly magazine.

Civil rights, social issues

The exhibit had other important paintings and images from World War II as well as Rockwell’s later works, which explored civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

It also had some of the objects shown in his paintings, such as the white dress worn by Ruby Bridges on her first day of school. Six-year-old Ruby was the first African American child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960. Every day of the school year, she entered the building with four U.S. Marshalls to protect her from threats.

Modern interpretations

The show also included works by newer artists offering their own perspective on freedom. One example is Maurice “Pops” Peterson’s Freedom from What? It shows modern-day African-American parents putting their children to bed while looking fearfully behind them.

Laurie Norton Moffatt is the director and chief executive officer of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She said she hopes the Rockwell paintings will influence a new generation of students, citizens and elected officials to live openly with the values of the Four Freedoms.

The traveling exhibit “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” will be at the Caen Memorial Museum, Normandy, France starting on June 4.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Julie Taboh reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

exhibit - n. to make (a painting, sculpture, etc.) available for people to see

illustration - n. a picture or drawing in a book, magazine,

inspire - v. to cause (something) to happen or be created

perspective - n. a way of thinking about and understanding something (such as a particular issue or life in general)

marshall - n. a law enforcement officer