Image: Courtesy MFAH

On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address spoke to freedom. The country, still mired in the Great Depression and watching the news of war from Europe with wary eyes and hearts, was in an uncertain place. Millions were jobless, and hope seemed a very distant thing in which to believe. Still, though, FDR’s speech talked about universal truths to Americans, and if the speech itself was heavily about foreign policy, the freedoms he outlined have come to be enduring elements of the American psyche.

“The Four Freedoms,” as they became known, were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. was plunged into World War II, and the four freedoms took on another life. Norman Rockwell, a painter and illustrator known for chronicling American life, painted a series of images for the magazine The Saturday Evening Post, bringing each of the ideas in FDR’s Four Freedoms to life on the page. Those images helped rally support for the war effort.

Now, those paintings, as well as a series of illustrations and prints by Rockwell and his contemporaries, along with multimedia, are on display at the MFAH. All of the works are on loan to the museum, which doesn’t own any Rockwell pieces currently.

Norman Rockwell: American Freedom, which includes many of his greatest paintings, will be the first major showing of Rockwell’s work at the museum,” says Kaylin H. Weber, associate curator and the Jeanie Kilroy Curator of American Painting and Sculpture. “In 2007, the museum presented Norman Rockwell’s work for the first time in a one-painting exhibition of Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum, a painting that has actually returned to Houston [for this exhibition]. We’re excited to introduce Houston audiences to this important 20th-century artist.”

And indeed, Rockwell was one of the last century’s most important painters and illustrators. His Saturday Evening Post covers and illustrations were vastly popular, but he also did illustrations for Boys’ Life magazine, Christmas cards, and more. He focused on slices of life in America, featuring everything from an unsure girl standing in front of her mirror holding up a prom dress trying to imagine what she’d look like in it, to a little boy who’s packed a kerchief full of what he needs to run away sitting on a diner stool next to a policeman who clearly intends to bring him back home. While those might seem whimsical images today, they showcase Rockwell’s sense of place and observation. 

“In addition to being an extraordinary storyteller, Norman Rockwell possessed a masterful technical ability and a keen eye for detail,” says Kilroy. “In his paintings, he brings these elements together to produce images that capture moments in time. He famously said that he was showing the America that he knew, and painting America as he wanted it to be. His optimistic, familiar, friendly, small-town perspective comes across in his iconic paintings and is a hallmark of his artistic style. These paintings still endure because even without being familiar with the time period or the specific subject matter, his paintings are easily understood and appreciated for his characteristic unequivocal technical mastery, extraordinary realism, and general good humor." 

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms echo that storytelling and eye for detail—but they are deeper images, less whimsical. Consider the man standing in the middle of Freedom of Speech, a pamphlet in his pocket, his hand resting on a railing, his mouth open as he speaks his opinion. Behind him is what looks to be a blackboard, and the hue of the image is more subdued than the bright pops in much of his other work. Meanwhile, Freedom From Want, that iconic image of the family around the Thanksgiving table, has a bright, almost gossamer glow that echoes with optimism, even though its subject is serious.

“When FDR gave his State of the Union address in January 1941, he pressed Americans to consider these freedoms not just for America, but everywhere in the world,” says Weber. “Like FDR’s powerful words, Rockwell’s iconic Four Freedom paintings have become emblems of democracy and basic human freedoms. In this day and age, I think viewers will find a simple and direct resonance in these powerful images.”

Exhibit-goers can also see footage of FDR’s speech in one of the exhibition galleries. Weber believes that will have a tremendous impact on visitors, as they listen to how America deliberated its entry to WWII. There are also works by modern photographers who pay homage to the Four Freedoms.

“The photographic series from the Four Freedoms collective of artists, Hank Willis Thomas, Emily Shur, Erice Gottesman, and Wyatt Gallery, reimagine what the four freedoms might look like today,” explains Weber. “Rather than Rockwell’s friends and next-door neighbor models, we see contemporary celebrities, public figures, and activists referencing similar poses and settings as the iconic compositions. These contemporary works reflect the diversity of American identities today.” 

Norman Rockwell: American Freedom is on display through March 22 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Tickets start at $23. For more details, including special lectures and events, visit https://www.mfah.org/exhibitions/norman-rockwell-american-freedom

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