These iconic paintings were executed by Norman Rockwell in 1943 to illustrate the Four Freedoms which President Franklin Roosevelt enumerated in an address to the Congress.
The Four Freedoms theme was derived from the 1941 State of the Union Address by United States President Franklin Roosevelt delivered to the 77th United States Congress on 6 January 1941. During the speech he identified four essential human rights that should be universally protected: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Want, and Freedom From Fear.
It is one of FDR’s many brilliant encapsulations of complex issues into brief and memorable statements which guided the American people during the Great Depression and the Second World War. The four freedoms both inform and remind the American people why we were fighting. The speech is noble. The paintings less so.
Originally done as covers for the Saturday Evening Post, the weekly magazine which Rockwell painted many covers for, the paintings are as fascinating for what is left out as to what is depicted. First and foremost, this wasn’t a very accurate picture of America in 1943 or any year. It’s a representation of what many people wanted their country to be like – an idealized version of the American dream, at least for white Americans who had some money.
America had just been through the terrible economic collapse of the Great Depression. At one point over 30% of households had no income. 60% of the population was classified as “poor” under US government guidelines. One million American families lost their farms. When the draft began, almost 30% of potential draftees were rejected by the armed forces because of medical issues stemming directly from malnutrition. This had been a disaster and the idea that by 1943 everyone was sitting down to a big Thanksgiving dinner is laughable.
Most notable for their total absence from the paintings are persons of color because in Rockwell’s idealized America they didn’t exist. It says something about the artist that a person of color doesn’t appear – even as a servant – and what it says about the artist isn’t flattering.
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]