In his January 1941 address to Congress, as World War II loomed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a streamlined statement of American principles, defined as “four freedoms”: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. By the time the war ended, those national aspirations were probably best known from a series of four paintings by magazine illustrator Norman Rockwell that is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.
The show’s title, “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms,” suggests a collaboration between the president and the painter. In fact, the two men met only once, for about 10 minutes.
That parley happened after the popular appeal of Rockwell’s artwork had already been well established. Initially, some government policymakers were unimpressed with Rockwell’s 1943 paintings. But the “Four Freedoms” went on to help sell millions of war bonds to people who were rewarded with prints of the paintings, or, in some cases, with a chance to gaze at the originals. (The quartet’s national tour began at Hecht’s Department Store, then at Seventh and F streets NW.)
The vision of American life that Rockwell exalted in his four canvasses was drawn from the small-town New England the painter revered. A native New Yorker, Rockwell moved in 1938 to Vermont, where he painted the famous foursome, and lived the rest of his life there or in Massachusetts. He wasn’t the only storyteller of that period to present the United States as a kind of idealized Vermont. Such Hollywood filmmakers as Frank Capra also tended to situate their version of authentic America in New England and Upstate New York.
While Capra never actually lived in the region, Rockwell was literally at home there. In “Freedom of Speech,” the painter depicts himself among the listeners at a Vermont town meeting. The farmer who holds the crowd’s attention was a real person whom Rockwell painted more than once. The artist’s first version of the scene, which has a less dramatic composition, is included in this show.
Several such outtakes are on display here, along with the jacket that the subject of the painting wore in the scene, and other artifacts. “Enduring Ideals” also includes other paintings executed by Rockwell in the same period, most notably a series of illustrations of a young G.I. dubbed Willie Gillis — an everyman thrust into war. Also on display are two variations of a home front scene in which several older men follow news of the war.
These paintings were made for the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine that was extremely popular at the time but not known for its daring. “Enduring Ideals” supplements the Post’s timid coverage of the era with edgier illustrations and photographs. There are photos that reveal the effects of the Great Depression and strong anti-Nazi magazine covers from Time and Life. One depicts a pile of corpses, an image the Post wouldn’t have touched.
In 1963, Rockwell left the Post and began contributing to Look magazine. There, he turned toward more controversial subjects, including the civil rights movement. In 1963’s “The Problem We All Live With,” grade-schooler Ruby Bridges is shown walking to the New Orleans school where she was the only African American student, escorted by four federal marshals. Unlike Willie Gillis, Bridges is not a composite character. Her story is specific and real.
So, too, 1965’s “Murder in Mississippi” imagines an actual event: the 1964 killing of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The crime is rendered in a brownish near-monochrome — as if to substitute for photographic documentation that doesn’t exist — and heightened by a touch of blood red.
These later paintings lead to a gallery of contemporary works by other artists that raise issues Rockwell never did. Sarah Fukami reminds us of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II — a war the United States fought for freedom. Jonathan Monaghan, a local artist who works in digital imagery, updates “Freedom from Fear” to encompass electronic surveillance. Maurice “Pops” Petersen addresses the same theme, with a largely faithful likeness of Rockwell’s painting. What’s the main difference between it and Rockwell’s painting of a family tucking their children into bed? In Petersen’s version, the family is now African American. The artist also slaps a new headline on the newspaper clutched by the concerned dad: “I Can’t Breathe.”
Seventy-six years after the paint dried on Rockwell’s pictures, freedom from fear remains an unrealized ideal.
George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. 202-994-5200. museum.gwu.edu .
Dates: Through April 29.
Prices: $8 suggested donation.