April 14, 2024 Essay: Four Freedoms in Art

Apr 5, 2024

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” — Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our parish lecture series this year has been (and it’s not over yet!) dedicated to the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his State of the Union address of 1941. As I mentioned in my essay of January 7th, FDR considered freedom “the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” The speech evidently inspired the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, cited above in its Preamble where it mentions the four freedoms: freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want.

Norman Rockwell, the master of Americana, captured the essence of daily life in hundreds of 20th-century magazine covers, and 80 years ago, he accomplished a greater feat, translating the nation’s ideals into indelible images known as the Four Freedoms, also inspired by President Roosevelt’s vision.

By illuminating rights that every American—and every person—should enjoy, Rockwell’s Four Freedoms validated the U.S. decision to enter World War II and overcome powerful enemies whose actions devalued human life. His enduring messages have lingered in the national consciousness, remaining as significant today as they were when the Saturday Evening Post published them in four consecutive weeks during the winter of 1943.

Immediately after publishing Rockwell’s four paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear (link)—the magazine received 25,000 requests to purchase copies. Color reproductions of all four sold for 25 cents apiece. The paintings became the basis for 4 million war posters sold as part of the War Bonds effort, raising $132,992,539. “They were received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art,” The New Yorker reported in 1945.

At the beginning of 1941, when isolationist sentiments still held sway over many Americans, Roosevelt’s goal was a simple one: to convince voters that standing alone ultimately could sacrifice freedoms at home and abroad.

“By an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers,” he told Americans. “We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”

Rockwell faced the difficult task of transforming governmental phraseology into evocative tableaux on canvas. He had expected to finish all four scenes in two months, but the work dragged on through seven months of false starts and revisions.

Nonetheless, Rockwell was fully committed to the Four Freedoms. “I just cannot express to you how much this series means to me. Aside from their wonderful patriotic motive,” he told his impatient editors, “there are no subjects which could rival them in opportunity for human interest.”

To complement the educational, inspirational, and personal lectures that have lifted our spirits and raised our consciousness, I invite you to allow the paintings to speak to you about the timeless meaning of freedom, perhaps now more imperative than in the past eight decades.

— Fr. Michael Hilbert, S.J., Associate Pastor

The fifth and final lecture in the series will be on Monday, May 6th, at 7 PM in Wallace Hall. The topic will be “Freedom from Fear” and the guest speaker will be Senator Angus King of Maine.