It was May 1942, and Rockwell had come to military headquarters to get approval for a poster promoting the Army’s Ordnance Department. On his way out the building, he stopped by the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures Graphic Division. An official told Rockwell the most difficult and urgent need was to create posters and billboards about the four freedoms. President Franklin Roosevelt had laid out the four freedoms as a rationale for entering World War II. "As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone," Roosevelt said in his speech (watch it here) articulating the freedoms everyone in the world ought to enjoy.
Rockwell went home to Arlington, Vt., and puzzled over ways to illustrate abstract ideas like ‘no aggrandizement.’ He was lying in bed at home when the solution came to him. He thought of a neighbor, Jim Edgerton, who had stood up at town meeting and criticized the decision to rebuild a school that had burned down. No one agreed with him, but everyone listened respectfully. “That’s it! That’s freedom of speech!” thought Rockwell. The next morning he was up at 5 a.m., drawing sketches of ordinary people doing ordinary things that illustrated basic American freedoms.
Fine Arts Men
He took his large charcoal drawings back to the Pentagon’s new Office of War Information, a centralized propaganda bureau. Typically, Rockwell would roll out his sketches on the floor like a rug, grinning with expectation.
He received a painful insult. An official believed to be Archibald MacLeish wouldn’t even look at them. “The last war you illustrators did the posters,” he said, according to Deborah Solomon in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. “This war we’re going to use fine arts men, real artists.”
MacLeish was an intellectual snob who edited the Saturday Evening Post’s rival, Fortune magazine. As assistant director of the OWI, he hired modernist artists like Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Salvador Dali to create posters for the war effort. They were never used.
On his way home, Rockwell stopped off in Philadelphia to show his sketches to Ben Hibbs, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post. Hibbs loved them.
Four Freedoms, Seven Months
For the next seven months, Rockwell worked feverishly on the paintings, pleading illness to avoid his other obligations and working himself into a state of nervous exhaustion. By the time he was finished he was flat broke and had lost 15 pounds.
He reworked first painting, ‘Freedom of Speech,’ over and over, using a local gas station owner as his model for the working-class man standing up and speaking at town meeting. He also had trouble with ‘Freedom of Worship,’ which featured eight heads representing different religions. Rose Hoyt, the model for the Catholic woman, told Rockwell she was an Episcopalian when he asked her to hold rosary beads. “Would you be a Catholic for today?” he asked. ‘Freedom From Fear’ is a sentimental interior scene of young parents checking in on their children before turning in for the night.
‘Freedom From Want’ was the third in the series, and many consider it Rockwell’s masterpiece. Mrs. Wheaton, Rockwell’s cook, modeled as the grandmother serving an enormous Thanksgiving turkey to a large family sitting around a table at midafternoon. Art critics especially admire the play of white-on-white; some note the beverage of choice – water – as casting a Puritan tone. Europeans, however, criticized the painting as an image of American gluttony. Rockwell later thought he’d made the turkey too big.
The paintings, published in four consecutive editions of the Saturday Evening Post, were a smash. The magazine received 60,000 letters, overwhelmingly positive. Even President Roosevelt wrote a letter praising them. ‘You have done a superb job bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms,” he wrote.
The Office of War Information, which had rejected Rockwell’s drawings, agreed to print 2.5 million posters of them. The U.S. Department of the Treasury took them on tour to 16 cities to promote war bonds. To kick it off, a five-minute newsreel of Rockwell painting in his studio appeared in movie theaters around the country.
The exhibit opened in Washington, D.C., on April 27, 1943, to huge crowds. More than $1 million in war bonds were sold in that city alone, as Rockwell autographed copies of the paintings. He declined to tour with the exhibit, and returned to Vermont.
Archibald MacLeish would leave the OWI after only eight months in office, citing policy differences.