The nation’s capital has been consumed recently with the run up to and the dedication of the much-anticipated National World War II Memorial. Opened to mixed reviews after years of controversy, the sprawling granite and bronze complex, sited on 7.4 acres of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, is undeniably awesome by day or night. It cost $175 million in private funds.
While there has been a good deal of critical comment about the design of Providence, R.I.-based architect Freiderich St Florian and to a lesser extent about the numerous sculptural objects created by Virginia-based Raymond Kaksey, there is general agreement that the massive project is long overdue and represents a good faith effort to honor the enormous commitment of Americans that led to victory in World War II. It specifically seeks to salute the 16 million soldiers who served in the US armed forces during the war, the more than 400,000 who died and the millions who actively supported the war effort at home.
Around Washington, various museums and organizations have mounted exhibitions to pay homage to “the greatest generation” that won the war. The most important cultural complement is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, not far from the new memorial, in the form of “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings That Inspired a Nation,” on view through September 6.
Co-organized by the Corcoran Gallery, led by Sarah Cash, curator of American art, and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the exhibition features the four iconic paintings Rockwell (1894-1978) created to immortalize the four freedoms – ideals that unite Americans and that we wish for the rest of the world.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a huge blowup of a photograph of Roosevelt delivering the speech to a joint session of Congress and in an alcove behind it a Paramount newsreel featuring the president giving the address. Beneath the photograph are exhibits of interesting artifacts relating to the talk, including a draft of the address by speechwriter Samuel I. Rosenman and a page from the fifth draft, with FDR’s handwritten changes that underscored his intent that the four freedoms become ideals “everywhere in the world.” Those amendments added effective rhetorical punch and emphasis to the message, but curiously were not greeted with applause when delivered.
Rockwell’s moving images, perpetuating in visual terms cherished American values, were an immediate hit when they appeared weekly in four consecutive issues of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. Opposite each full-color, full-page reproduction was an essay by such eminent writers as Booth Tarkington, Will Durant and Stephen Vincent Benet.
Ironically, a year before federal government officials had rejected the Four Freedoms series when the artist sought their backing for it. Characteristic of the view of war-harried bureaucrats when Rockwell visited them in Washington was Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, who told the artist, “We’d love to print your Four Freedoms, but we can’t … We just don’t have the time to spare to arrange it. We think they’d be a fine contribution. We’d be delighted if someone would publish them.”
Within days of their appearance in the Post, the government adopted the images to promote sales of War Bonds, sending the paintings on a 16-city, 17-month national tour, often accompanied by Rockwell signing posters reproducing his pictures. During the tour some $132 million was realized in War Bond sales.
Rockwell’s images, it was clear, lifted the spirits of a country at war and helped convey understanding of “why we fight.” “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms,” FDR wrote Rockwell.
Rockwell’s depictions, the Corcoran points out, are “four of the most powerful and enduring images in American history.” Indeed more than 40 years after they appeared, they continue to pack a wallop and serve as lasting reminders of what America is all about.
As the exhibition and useful accompanying book document, Rockwell, then at the height of his profession and America’s most famous illustrator, spent months in 1942 mulling over ideas as to how to visualize Roosevelt’s words on canvas. An epiphany came early one morning when the artist recalled a lone dissenter’s passionate remarks at a recent town meeting in Arlington, Vt., where Rockwell lived, 1939-1953. He decided to base the universal, symbolic freedoms on his observations of the daily rituals of his Vermont neighbors – using townspeople (a few of whom are still living) as models.
“Rockwell struggled with how to illustrate these abstract comments,” observes Cash, “but, in 1943, after numerous drafts and studies, he represented the Four Freedoms in a way every American could identify with and understand.”
Over a six-month period, Rockwell used photographs to record models in various arrangements and poses, which were then translated into charcoal sketches, oil sketches and finally the four finished canvases. Notes Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Rockwell Museum, which owns the original works, “Rockwell’s paintings are enduring national symbols; his images capture the essence of President Roosevelt’s speech and illustrate, for ordinary Americans, our nation’s democratic ideals.”
He fixed on an Arlington town meeting as the site for “Speech,” with the ruggedly handsome Carl Hess, a local gas station owner, as the chief model. Rockwell believed his first effort, a straight-on composition in a broad setting, lacked sufficient focus on the speaker, and it was scrapped.
After several more unsatisfactory versions, the artist decided on a perspective as though the viewer were turning to look at the speaker from a front bench. It zeroed in on the man on his feet talking rather than the gathering.
The final version shows an ordinary man, standing amidst his neighbors and speaking his mind. Rockwell’s next-door neighbor, Jim Edgerton, inspired the composition when he spoke at a town meeting against a popular plan to build a new school.
“[E]veryone else disagreed with [what he said],” the artist remembered, “But they let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My God, I thought, that’s it! There it is, Freedom of Speech.”
In the painting, several onlookers hold blue-covered copies of the Annual Report of the Town of Arlington, Vermont, and there is a folded copy in the pocket of the speaker. On view in the show is the weathered bombardier jacket worn by Rockwell’s model. “Freedom of Speech,” to say the least, is a memorable image.
The first version of “Freedom of Worship” was set in a local barbershop, a popular community gathering place often depicted by Rockwell. Sitting around conversing amiably were varied types: a white protestant barber, a Jewish man in the chair and a slender Anglo-Saxon man, an elderly black man and a genial Catholic priest waiting their turn. The artist decided this effort to portray American acceptance of religious diversity was too difficult to grasp, and experimented with several other approaches.
He finally decided to depart from his usual narrative style and produce closeup profiles of an assorted group of praying men and women, bathed in a soft, golden light. Above them appears the phrase, “EACH ACCORDING TO THE DICTATES OF HIS OWN CONSCIENCE.”
Rose Hoyt, an Arlington neighbor who Rockwell asked to pose for “Speech” and “Worship,” recalled the artist’s concern about whether she was comfortable being in the latter. When he asked her if she would mind holding a rosary, she told him that “since I’m Episcopalian I didn’t know much about the Catholic religion.” Said Rockwell, “Well, would you mind being Catholic for a day?” She did not and appears front and center in the finished painting. The artist considered “Worship” the best of the quartet.
In “Freedom from Want,” smiling members of a family gather expectantly around a groaning board as the Thanksgiving turkey is placed before them by a matronly woman modeled by Mrs Thaddeus Wheaton, the Rockwells’ cook. The image grew out of photographs taken at the Rockwell family’s Thanksgiving meal, which included the artist’s visiting mother, who is depicted in the painting. Interestingly cropped, the picture extends below the edge of the canvas, as if encouraging viewers to join the repast.
Rockwell was somewhat uneasy about the final version, because it seemed to symbolize “overabundance, the table was so loaded with food,” at a time when occupied Europe was suffering food shortages.
“Freedom from Fear” depicts a mother tucking in bed her two sleeping children, while the pensive father stands nearby, holding a newspaper with headlines about bombing raids on overseas cities. The newspaper and its headlines were based on a dummy edition produced by the area journal, the Bennington Banner, at the artist’s request.
“My brother and I were not too cooperative when Norman wanted us to model as [the] two sleeping children,” recalled Marjorie Squiers, who posed for the child on the far side of the bed. “At 7 years old, we naturally were very curious and wanted to know what was going on around us. It was broad daylight and we were wide awake…We finally quieted down long enough for Norman’s photographer to catch my brother and me with our eyes closed.”
“Fear” implements an idea Rockwell had first thought of during intense German bombings of London during The Battle of Britain. The concept, the artist said, was “Thank God we can put our children to bed at night with a feeling of security, knowing they will not be killed in the night.”
Rockwell was unhappy with this and one other Four Freedoms painting, writing in his autobiography, “I never liked ‘Freedom from Fear’ or, for that matter, ‘Freedom from Want.’ Neither of them has any wallop.” Most viewers then – and now – seem to disagree.
On a wall outside the main exhibition galleries are some 40 Rockwell Post covers, executed between 1941 and 1946. They feature unsentimental, but often poignant views of servicemen and everyday civilians going about their lives in wartime America. Perhaps the most recognizable is the feisty depiction of “Rosie the Riveter,” framed by a huge American flag, who pauses in her labors to advance the war effort with her foot firmly planted on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Other well-remembered covers feature the fictional, affable and often bewildered GI draftee Willie Gillis engaged in a variety of mundane military and home front activities.
Decades ago, Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs called Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series “great human documents in the form of paint and canvas. A great picture…is one which moves and inspires millions of people. The ‘Four Freedoms’ did – and do.”
For years, the original four paintings hung in The Old Corner House, a museum on Main Street maintained by the Stockbridge Historical Society. They were transferred to the Norman Rockwell Museum on the outskirts of the town when it opened in 1993. There they joined more than 500 Rockwell originals, selections from his 322 Post covers, and myriad artifacts and archives relating to the artist.
All in all, “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Images That Inspired a Nation” is a fitting and timely complement to Washington’s new memorial to the heroes of World War II. These basic human values remain an inspiration to a country now confronted with a new and unfamiliar challenge, the war on terrorism.
The Four Freedoms, particularly as immortalized by Norman Rockwell, continue to offer fundamental, uniting principles as Americans shoulder the burdens of the world’s greatest democracy and superpower.
For those interested in learning more about the subject, Stuart Murray and James McCabe’s book, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Images that Inspire a Nation, is highly recommended. Released on the 50th anniversary of the series in 1993 by Berkshire House Publishers in association with the Rockwell Museum, it offers detailed insights into the context and creation of the famous images, reprints of the four essays that accompanied the Post reproductions, and new essays by the likes of historian James MacGregor Burns (“Freedom from Want”) and former United Nations Undersecretary Brin Urguhart (“Freedom from Fear”).
The 143-page book is fully illustrated and sells for $14.95 (softcover), 800-321-8256. The Corcoran Gallery of Art is at New York Avenue and Seventeenth Street, NW. For information, 202-639-1700 or www.corcoran.org.