Many might describe art as an outlet for tranquility and understanding in this world. It has proven to be necessary as such in difficult times of war and confusion, especially in the United States. During periods such as the Great Depression and the devastation of Pearl Harbor, the American people needed a form of clarity and encouragement. Because of this, artists everywhere were utilized to illustrate posters, newspaper, and magazines. Out of the many illustrators emerged one who quickly became beloved by all: Norman Rockwell.
In light of the past memorial weekend, MIR Appraisal would like to take this time to review a portion of Rockwell’s wartime paintings that were used as tools to inspire the American people and pay tribute to those who have fought honorably. In a time of great need, Rockwell’s illustrations carried messages with impactful truth that always seemed to bring comfort.
As World War I sparked between the United States and government of Germany, Rockwell yearned to heroically fight for his country. He enlisted in the army at age 23, but was quickly assigned to the Charleston Naval Shipyard due to his serious lack of muscle weight. Because of this, Rockwell was able to put his brushes to use in the camp newspaper, Afloat and Ashore. He also took this time to continue painting commissions for The Saturday Evening Post; the beginning of 323 covers he would eventually create for the magazine. The war eventually ended in November of 1918 and Rockwell returned home where he became flooded with commissions and high praise for his work. The Roaring Twenties’ economic boom allowed Rockwell to travel to Europe and South America.
Beyond the economy’s rise and fall, Rockwell’s painting career only increased in demand. He was commissioned to illustrate both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for the famous Mark Twain. Rockwell continued to practice his oil painting everyday using his family and neighbors as models. Eventually, in 1939, World War II broke loose and Rockwell’s inspiring illustrations were needed more than ever, and he struggled to find a way to contribute to his country’s war effort that was bigger than a war poster. He then heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s state of the union address delivered on January 6th, 1941. Roosevelt was preparing America for future involvement in the war and he told Congress:
"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which…means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which…means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world."
Rockwell found fiery inspiration from the president’s speech and he immediately enthused the idea of painting four separate posters depicting the Four Freedoms. “I got all excited,” he explained. “I knew it was the best idea I’d ever had.” He pitched his sketches to the US capital but they turned him away and said they were only looking for “real, fine art” artists. Fortunately, the Saturday Evening Post saw the value in Rockwell’s sketches and ordered him to drop all other work that would get in the way of the Four Freedoms.
For the next six months, Rockwell agonized over the four posters, repainting and critiquing. The end result was a set of paintings that would capture the heart of America for years to come. He brilliantly used everyday settings from his home and church to easily convey each idea of the Four Freedoms. The American people responded with immense appreciation and a demand for 2.5 million reprints. The US government, who refused to hire him months earlier, placed the original art in the center of war bond shows across the nation. The forceful artwork was able to draw more than 1.2 million people who bought over $133 million in bonds for the war effort. The popularity of the set played a tremendous role in revolutionizing the home front. The President himself affirmed the efforts with gratitude: “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms.” Roosevelt also said, “I congratulate you…for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world.”
Despite the country’s state of fear and tumult, Norman Rockwell was able to go beyond simply creating art for beauty or entertainment. Rather, he utilized his skills to break the barrier built by war and voice an inspiring message of freedom and patriotism. Rockwell’s impact on the nation’s war efforts and the art world will never be forgotten.