Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

 The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

 Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling