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Norman Rockwell's WWII Posters -- Special Collections Finds

by Tara Wink on 2017-03-27T00:00:00-04:00 in History, Art

On January 6, 1941, an aging Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms during his State of the Union address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. By articulating national ideals, Roosevelt hoped to generate support for the allied war effort in Europe. The speech described the president’s idealistic sentiments for the country and thus became known as Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms Speech,” as a result of the iconic nature of these freedoms. The lofty idealism espoused by Roosevelt in his speech would later be mirrored in several paintings done by Norman Rockwell, which attempted to depict each of these four freedoms. Inspired by the patriotic imperative triggered by the involvement of the United States in World War II, Rockwell’s paintings reflect a need to unite in preparation for the upcoming times of strife and struggle. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear were first published in The Saturday Evening Post on February 20, February 27, March 6, and March 13, 1943 respectively, along with commissioned essays from various American writers and historians. The paintings were also distributed to the American public through posters as part of the War Bond Drive, further fueling the proliferation of patriotic sentiments. By giving citizens the opportunity to support the war effort through bonds, the country saw an increase in patriotism and acted as an effective marketing device in summoning support. In addition to this, the paintings were reproduced as postage stamps in 1941, in 1943, in 1946, and in 1994, further exemplifying their ubiquity among the public. West Chester University’s Special Collections owns a poster copy of both Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Fear.

Freedom of Speech was the first painting in the series The Four Freedoms. Rockwell’s paintings, known for their proclivity to idealize American culture and reflect life as Rockwell envisioned it, spoke with a gentle pathos to the American public. Depicted in Freedom of Speech is a local town meeting in which a lone dissenter can be seen speaking up in opposition to the crowd, thereby exhibiting his freedom of speech. The painting is notable for the dramatic angle presented, highlighting the central figure and distinguishing him from the other members of the town. His attire evinces the idyllic reassurance of blue-collar, middle-class sentiments, as opposed to the older and more formally dressed present at the meeting. One could imagine the central figure as inviting the viewer into the scene, as if they are present at the town meeting. The striking quality of the painting emerges from this use of perspective, as Rockwell had just begun using photography in combination with live models and his own idealistic vision. This painting was accompanied with an essay by Booth Tarkington in The Saturday Evening Post.

Freedom from Fear depicts an American family tucking their children into bed as the carnage of the Blitz rages on in Europe. The sentimental values of family and unity can be seen in full rhetorical effect, as it depicts a scenario evoking paternal notions. The care and concern seen in the parents can furthermore be projected onto the United States as a whole. Often described as overly intimate, Rockwell himself expressed a disappointment with this painting, preferring Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship as the pinnacle of this series. Freedom from Fear was the only one in the series to be created prior to the commissioning of the series. The painting was published in The Saturday Evening Post with an essay by Stephen Vincent Benét.

Ultimately, Rockwell’s paintings represented the need for tolerance, courtesy, kindness, and political freedoms expressed in Roosevelt’s titular speech. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings appealed to a large audience and were rhetorically successful through his detailed narrative approach. The wholesome and idealized sentiments in these paintings sought to comfort and console a nation during a time of immense strife. A distinctly positive set of paintings, Rockwell was criticized for his elision of misery, such as poverty and other forms of social unrest. Through the influence of these paintings the notions contained in these four freedoms was incorporated into the Atlantic charter, and the charter of the United Nations.


Blog post written by Chadd Heller, Class of 2017.  Chadd is an Intern in Special Collections and an English Major and German Minor.

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