On 24 October 2019 Professor James J. Kimble of Seton Hall University (South Orange, New Jersey) gave an entertaining public lecture about Norman Rockwell’s visual promotion of the Four Freedoms in the 1940s, entitled “Roosevelt, Rockwell, and the War of Ideals: The Struggle for the Four Freedoms in History and Memory.”
Rockwell played a crucial role in popularizing the Four Freedoms, so crucial that they may have failed to capture the imagination of Americans at all were it not for his efforts. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly embraced the goal of pursuing his now infamous “Four Freedoms” around the world, his noble cause was not embraced with as much enthusiasm as one might expect. This was partially because the number of freedoms would eventually change several times between speeches and partially because subsequent publications by the government about the Four Freedoms were often confusing and uninspiring. The newspaper media was indeed more interested in discussing the Lend-Lease program, which was announced in the same speech as the Four Freedoms, as the global struggle for human rights.
For the first year or so after Roosevelt first coined the phrase, the Four Freedoms struggled to get any real attention. Kimble even referred to them as the “Four Flops.” This all changed when the famous artist Norman Rockwell decided to make four popular paintings that would each visualize one of the freedoms. Rockwell managed to get his paintings published in the Saturday Evening Post, and thus share them with the nation. Millions of Americans saw the paintings and thus learned about the Four Freedoms. The American government was quick to jump on the bandwagon and organized a war bond show in which the original paintings toured through the country as a means of propaganda. The paintings, through their simple settings, made the Four Freedoms understandable and relatable to the general public. The show was a huge success and cemented the link in most people’s minds between the Four Freedoms of FDR and the paintings of Norman Rockwell by the same name. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms also had a downside however.
During the Q&A after the lecture it was pointed out that FDR’s Four Freedoms, while meant for people “everywhere in the world,” were at the time not fully implemented in the United States itself, where segregation still reigned. People of color were not meant to be included in these basic freedoms and were also not visible Rockwell’s paintings. According to Kimble, even if Rockwell had wanted to include people of color in his depictions of the freedoms, he would not have been allowed to do so by the paper that he worked for. The readers of the Saturday Evening Post were not interested in seeing People of color depicted as equals.
Kimble thus simultaneously presented to an engaged public both the popularity and the underlying shortcomings of the now infamous Four Freedoms.