Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

An American Illustrator

It is almost time to wish America happy birthday. With Independence Day just around the corner, you can expect a series of American commemorations of all sizes and shapes. But there are some American traditions and cultural idioms which remain timeless. Apple pie for example. Also blue jeans, Bruce Springsteen, the stars and stripes, bacon, and of course, Norman Rockwell's illustrations.

In fact, take one look at any of Rockwell's paintings or vignettes from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post and you'll see familiar snapshots of daily activities of America's past. At the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the legacy of Rockwell's jovial yet poignant work continues to engage viewers. His iconic images of small-town America and civic connectivity may seem alien in today's world, but perhaps that makes them all the more relevant.

According to Dr. Joyce Schiller, curator at the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell's illustrations offer a glimpse of how America thought of itself in the years surrounding the second World War. "Even in the worst of times you will see the humor [in Rockell's illustrations] that binds us together, the hope that shines from us and the desire that our national ideals really are the foundation of what our country is and might be, " she said.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom from Fear, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4” x 35 1/2". Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 13, 1943. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

The Norman Rockwell Museum not only allows visitors to explore Rockwell's studio but also houses some of his most well-known work. Especially poignant as we celebrate Independence Day is Rockwell's Four Freedoms series. In January 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined four essential freedoms which should be afforded to all people "everywhere in the world" during his State of the Union address. Rockwell's series of four paintings included a visual story of those four essential freedoms: Freedom of Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want. We wanted to know a little more about Rockwell's Four Freedoms and Dr. Schiller was happy to oblige.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 ¾ x 35 ½". Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

NEA: What birthed the Four Freedoms series?

DR. JOYCE SCHILLER: Even before Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address, Rockwell and his good friend and fellow illustrator Mead Schaeffer were thinking about offering their services to the government by contributing poster designs to support the war effort. A variety of government offices turned them down. They [the government offices] did not think illustrators were as good at making poster designs as "real" artists. On their trip home from the Capital, Rockwell stopped in Philadelphia to see his Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs. As they talked, Rockwell told the story of he and Schaeffer being turned down to assist in the poster design. Hibbs suggested that Rockwell create four illustrations, one for each of the Four Freedom concepts, for the Saturday Evening Post to publish. By 1943, the paintings were ready and the magazine ran those pieces over four consecutive issues.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Freedom of Worship, 1943, Oil on canvas, 46” x 35 1/2”. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

NEA: What was the public response?

SCHILLER: The illustrations were such a phenomenal success that the Saturday Evening Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury sent the original paintings on a nationwide, 16-city tour. Each of the tour locations were co-sponsored by a local department store. By the tour's end, more than one million people saw those paintings and raised nearly $133 million in war bond sales and stamps---more than any other war bond poster push.

NEA: If Norman Rockwell was able to recapture the Four Freedoms series in 2013, what do you think he would portray?

 SCHILLER: The clothing and settings might have changed so that the images would be contemporary to 2013 instead of to 1943, but I think the essential reflection of real people living their everyday lives would remain the same. Rockwell didn't make us who we were; he merely held up a mirror and what we might have seen in that mirror was in his illustrations.

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