No one created more iconic images of 20th-century America than did illustrator Norman Rockwell. With his gentle humor and sensitive understanding of human nature, he translated America as it likes to see itself onto his canvases, canvases then rendered into hundreds of magazine covers.
Perhaps none of these paintings better captured the essence of American ideals than his famous Four Freedoms, paintings that exemplify President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision for a postwar world. They are based on the four basic human freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—that Roosevelt articulated in his 1941 State of the Union address.
In 1943, Rockwell transformed Roosevelt’s words into visual metaphors. “Roosevelt wanted the Allied world to have a clear vision of what we were fighting for, not just what we were fighting against,” said Dr. Allida Black, a research professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC. “They appeared on the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, which was the most popular syndicated magazine of that time.”
Rockwell’s desire to help the war effort was an enormous success. After their publication, the Post received 25,000 requests for reprints and in May 1943, representatives from the Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a joint campaign to sell war bonds and stamps, sending the Four Freedoms paintings on a national tour. The paintings raised $133 million for the war effort.
It has been 75 years since Rockwell painted the images, but their meaning has never been more important. “The defense budget, immigration, education, the right to vote, the environment, disaster relief, children’s health care—these are all major issues we confront today and are having intense conversations about,” said Black. “They are all Four Freedoms issues. It is always a process to move forward and the process is often daunting, but staying aloof and being complacent is not the answer.”
Black will come to the Norman Rockwell Museum Saturday to give a lecture about “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in honor of Presidents Weekend. The lecture, which will be presented at 5:30PM, is free for museum members and those under 18 years of age and is included with museum admission for others.
“I’m not going to talk about Rockwell and Eleanor—I don’t know that they ever met—but about how she made the Four Freedoms real in terms of policy and international aspirations,” said Black. “She took the ideals of the Four Freedoms and incorporated them into the Universal Declaration. What that meant to world! What a call to action! What understandings we can we draw from the Four Freedoms.”
Black, who has served as an advisor to PBS, The History Channel, A&E, and the Discovery Channel and has curated exhibitions focusing on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, noted that basic human rights were the lifework of Eleanor Roosevelt. “The world we are trying to defend now is Eleanor Roosevelt’s world,” she said.
She said Roosevelt had the courage of her convictions when she tackled the problems and inequities of her time in history. “She risked her life, her own comfort and her fortune to do it,” she said. “She believed you have to risk yourself in every possible way to make the world better. She believed we have to summon the courage to look fear in the face and walk past it. The Four Freedoms allow people to summon that courage.”
Roosevelt, a lifelong humanitarian, had labored since her young adult years to better the lot of others. Following her return from school in England, Roosevelt taught the poor at the Rivington Street Settlement House in New York, initiating her lifelong work on behalf of the underprivileged. In her mature years she continued to fight for the dispossessed particularly during the Great Depression and, during World War II, she appeared to be everywhere at once, touring war zones, comforting the wounded, and reporting back to her husband on the welfare of the troops, while still lobbying for the needy and disenfranchised in the United States.
But it was after the war and the death of her husband, that she became a force in her own right. President Harry S. Truman named her a delegate to the United Nations where she was elected chairman of the Human Rights Commission.
In this capacity she wrote parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helping to keep the language focused on human dignity. She worked tirelessly to persuade those opposed to the document and to inspire those friendlier to it. She once described her approach this way, “I drive hard and when I get home I will be tired! The men on the Commission will be also!”
Roosevelt saw the 30 statements in the declaration as originating at the local level. "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” she wrote. “In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Black, who is also emeritus editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, a project designed to preserve, teach and apply Eleanor Roosevelt's writings and discussions of human rights and democratic politics, said “Eleanor loved life, but she saw the worst it had to offer. She had seen the despair in how democracy worked. Every day she saw the shortcomings of our most cherished beliefs. We need to take courage from her vision, stand on her shoulders and go forward.”
As for Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, they will continue to inspire new generations through yet another national tour. Organized by the Rockwell museum, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & The Four Freedoms will illuminate both the historic context in which the president articulated them and the role of Rockwell’s paintings in rallying the public behind the War effort. The exhibition opens at the New York Historical Museum on May 25. In addition to her talk on Eleanor Roosevelt, Black contributed an essay to the exhibition’s guidebook.