Norman Rockwell’s Conflicted America

The New York Historical Society chronicles the paintings that promoted FDR’s “Four Freedoms.”


This article is part of a series—At 250, Who Will America Be?—reporting on threats to American democracy as we approach the nation’s Semiquincentennial, on July 4, 2026.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler rose to the leadership of their countries within weeks of each other, in March 1933, during the heart of the Great Depression. Hitler portrayed minorities as sinister parasites and employed bellicose nationalism to scare and bully Germans into obedience to his dictatorship. He prepared his people for genocidal war with his biography cum racist tract Mein Kampf, which included such brutal sentiments as, “All who are not of good race in this world are chaff.” Roosevelt, in stark contrast, laid out a simple tenet in his first inaugural address to the American people: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

As the New York Historical Society’s exhibition “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” amply demonstrates, this was also an age when large-format color magazine pages offered illustrators huge canvases upon which to tug heartstrings and/or sell soap. In a crowded field that included one of his mentors, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) was one of the most talented artists, selling his first cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, when he was only 22 years old. The image of a disgruntled lad in suit, tie, and bowler hat pushing a baby carriage past rambunctious friends who mock him with tipped baseball caps established Rockwell’s visual storytelling technique: dead-on body language (derived from staged photographs), telling details (a baby bottle juts from the suit coat’s breast pocket), and theatrical facial expressions. Rockwell eventually completed more than 320 covers for the Post — a magazine he called “the greatest show window in America,” and which had a weekly circulation of more than 3 million copies. These visions of seasonal frolic, holiday plenty, and familial contentment portrayed an idealized status quo, where individuals accepted civic responsibility even as they indulged in occasional eccentricities and waggish behavior.

Rockwell was born in New York City, where his father was a manager in a textile firm and his mother was a homemaker. There he attended the National Academy of Design and the Arts Students League. His early successes in the Roaring Twenties led to a house in Westchester and marriage to a woman who enjoyed the wealthy lifestyle his pictures provided but who divorced him because, she claimed, he was too absorbed in his work. His second marriage produced three sons and a move to Arlington, Vermont, where he could live the bucolic, small-town existence he so often depicted in his cover paintings. In 1936 he wrote, “The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand ― all these things arouse feeling in me.”

But by the late 1930s, America was changing. Hitler had consolidated his power through secret-police intimidation at home and aggressive war abroad. In 1940 Roosevelt committed to supplying armaments to countries fighting the fascists — especially Britain, the last democracy standing against Hitler’s conquest of Europe — despite arguments by Republican leaders against intervention in foreign conflicts. After being elected for an unprecedented third term, in November 1940, Roosevelt set out to convince a reluctant America that it must prepare for battle against the newly formed Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan. In his January 6, 1941, State of the Union address, FDR attempted to distill the differences between despotism and democracy down to what he termed “The Four Freedoms”:

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

This rhetoric did not have the impact FDR hoped for; many Americans were reluctant to get entangled in conflicts that were oceans distant. But the question became moot eleven months later, with Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. As young men across the nation enlisted in the armed forces and American women rose up to take their places in the workforce, Rockwell and other illustrators found their own ways to aid the war effort. The Historical Society exhibition showcases works by a number of artists, including graphic designer J. Howard Miller’s famous “We Can Do It” poster of a young woman, her hair prudently tucked into a polka-dot kerchief as she rolls up her sleeves to prepare for work that had previously been done by the men who went overseas. A wall label informs viewers that the image was created as an in-house motivational poster for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and that Miller employed the upraised-fist composition because it would have been “familiar to the original Westinghouse viewers, since a similar gesture was used as a symbol of solidarity in the corporation’s labor force.”

The exhibition also includes trading cards depicting scenes whose titles tell it all: “Death Rides the Skies,” “Terror Stalks the Streets of Paris,” “Horror Camps in Naziland.” These cardboard polemics came with tobacco products; some parents objected when the stark scenes were included, like baseball cards, in candy targeted at children. Arthur Szyk’s obsessively detailed pen, ink, and pencil drawing Arsenal of Democracy II (1942) features smoke-billowing armament factories and planes in formation in the distance, behind a close-up of a worker in overalls with a pipe wrench resting on one shoulder. Behind him appears a younger version of himself, in military gear. The juxtaposition was meant to drive home the idea that every generation was needed in the fight against fascism’s existential threats.

Over the course of the war Rockwell cranked out covers for the Saturday Evening Post, including his iconic vision Rosie the Riveter. Based on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction of the Prophet Isaiah, the robust, relaxed Rosie chomps on a sandwich, a heavy pneumatic rivet gun lying across her lap, her foot resting on a copy of Mein Kampf. As the conflict ground on, Roosevelt continued to promote his Four Freedoms as justification for the sacrifices Americans were making, on both the battlefields and the home front. His administration viewed the ideological quartet as a way to contrast American ideas of inclusive progress with the racist rhetoric of Axis despots, and artists were encouraged to depict this in the visual arts, on the stage, and in concert halls. Among other artifacts, the exhibition includes a photograph of four sculpted angels, each corresponding to one of FDR’s ideals.

In early 1942, wanting to do his part, Rockwell packed up some sketches and boarded a train to Washington, D.C. Although there were bureaucrats at the Office of War Information at that time who would have been happy to use Rockwell, their paths did not cross in the busy labyrinth of offices. Instead, on the return trip to New England, a dejected Rockwell stopped off at the Post’s offices, in Philadelphia. The editor, Ben Hibbs, responded enthusiastically to the images, saying, “Norman, you’ve got to do them for us.” Hibbs told the artist to drop everything else, including covers for the magazine, until the Four Freedoms paintings were done.

When Rockwell’s illustrations of each of the Freedoms, accompanied by interpretive essays by various authors, appeared in four successive issues of the Saturday Evening Post, starting in February 1943 — the war’s midpoint — FDR’s principles finally began to take hold in the public mind. All four of the original paintings are on view here, each roughly four feet high and three feet wide, proportions that would reproduce well when reduced to a full page in the magazine.


By 1966, the artist who had created illustrations exhorting civilians to work ever harder to supply the soldiers fighting fascism abroad had turned down a request to paint a recruitment poster for the Marine Corps, because he felt conflicted about the Vietnam War.


Rockwell initially struggled with ways to personify FDR’s abstract ideals. Then he had a eureka moment: “One night as I was tossing in bed, mulling over the proclamation and the war, rejecting one idea after another and getting more and more discouraged as the minutes ticked by, all empty and dark, I suddenly remembered how Jim Edgerton had stood up in a town meeting and said something that everyone else disagreed with. But they had let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My gosh, I thought, that’s it. There it is. Freedom of Speech.… I’ll express the ideas in simple, everyday scenes.”

Freedom of Speech focuses on a central figure standing to deliver his argument at a rural town meeting, faces young and old upturned to listen. The man wears a flannel shirt and a workman’s coarse jacket, his head framed by a blank blackboard as if spotlit in a movie. Rockwell was making the point that all dissent deserves a respectful hearing rather than jail time or execution. (He was also obsessive about props and models; the jacket worn by the gas station owner who posed as the lone dissenter is on display in a vitrine near the painting.)

Freedom From Fear shows parents tucking their children into bed, the father holding a newspaper that includes “Bombing” and “Horror” in its headlines. The exhibition’s wall label reads, in part, “Rockwell had three sons of his own and believed that all parents should be able to put their children to bed each night without worrying about their safety. In retrospect, he considered the composition ‘rather smug’ in its depiction of domestic security in the United States during a period of nightly bombings in London.”

Rockwell would eventually have doubts about his own worldview, and it was the essay for Freedom From Want that exposed problems in America the artist had yet to tackle. Rockwell portrayed multiple generations gathered round a Thanksgiving table laden with sparkling dinnerware, fruits, and vegetables; an immense turkey in the matriarch’s arms descends like bounty from heaven. Hibbs counterpointed this idyllic vision with an essay by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino American poet, novelist, and labor activist. Bulosan had worked as a journeyman laborer and fruit picker, and he wrote, “If you want to know what we are, look upon the farms or upon the hard pavements of the city. You usually see us working or waiting for work, and you think you know us, but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history.… We celebrate labor, wisdom, peace of the soul.… But we are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves. It is only when we have plenty to eat — plenty of everything — that we begin to understand what freedom means.” Bulosan was asking nettlesome questions about a democracy that delivered such uneven prosperity.

Some readers disliked Bulosan’s words as much as they despised the social programs implemented through FDR’s New Deal, such as the Social Security system. As far as Rockwell’s fourth painting in the series, Freedom of Worship, was concerned, one reader was having none of it. “I want to tell you very strongly how very bad I think your picture of ‘Freedom of Worship’ is,” wrote T.C. Upham, the general director of the Cape Theater, in Cape May, New Jersey. Among the concerns enumerated in his letter was that all the people portrayed looked like “laborers and poor and worn — where is the middle class and the intellectual, etc?… The caption, ‘Each according to the dictates of his own conscience,’ is ill chosen, because in the viewpoint of many people the Catholics do not worship according to their own conscience but according to the dictates of the Holy Roman Church.”

Rockwell had composed Freedom of Worship as a solid wall of faces, purposely not placing them in a setting that might be interpreted as a church, temple, or mosque but depicting them as everyday humans worshipping their respective gods. This is also the only painting to present a face that isn’t white-skinned, although the almost grisaille pallet soft-pedals any sense of broad diversity. That would come, for Rockwell, with a later war.

Despite the angry letters, the paintings proved a huge hit and were endlessly reproduced as posters; the canvases also traveled on a national exhibition tour that raised more than $100 million for the cause. When World War II ended, in 1945, Rockwell was more popular than ever. In the prosperous postwar era, he continued to follow his creed of idealization, writing in 1960: “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.” But it was getting harder to ignore the ugliness that had not yet made it into his pictures. In 1963 he painted his last cover for the Post, a memorial portrait of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy. A few months later he was working for Look magazine, and his first illustration was of the six-year-old African American girl Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by four deputy U.S. marshals, who were protecting her from furious whites protesting the 1960 integration of a New Orleans elementary school. This was a serious switch for Rockwell, who once had to paint out a black figure because the Post had a policy of portraying people of color in service-industry jobs only.

By 1966, the artist who had created illustrations exhorting civilians to work ever harder to supply the soldiers fighting fascism abroad had turned down a request to paint a recruitment poster for the Marine Corps, because he felt conflicted about the Vietnam War. “I just can’t paint a picture unless I have my heart in it,” he wrote in his response. In this late period of his career Rockwell found the heart to illustrate articles that covered the murders of civil rights workers in the South, and to celebrate the accomplishments of Peace Corps workers abroad.

In 1968 he included a self-portrait in a picture entitled The Right to Know. (He can be seen on the far right, pipe in mouth, behind the young woman with a flower in her hair.) A frieze of multicultural, multiracial faces gaze skeptically across a long table, as if they are witnesses at a government hearing. The vantage point asked viewers to consider their own consciences and beliefs — which side are you on in a world that has just seen the assassinations of prominent progressives and violent racial animus? Where do you stand on the escalating savagery in Vietnam, a conflict with none of the clarity of a “good war” that had defined democracy as a beacon of civilization?


“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”


Rockwell once said, “People tell me, ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I love your stuff.’ I wish they’d say the opposite, ‘I know a lot about art, and I love your stuff.’ ” He was an apt technician, taking care to deploy judicious daubs of pigment to emphasize painterly touches in his quasi-photorealist images. But he always had to keep in mind the need to look past the studio to how the work would photograph for mechanical reproduction, which meant keeping contours well defined and surfaces uniform, sacrificing some of the abstractly expressive gestures that painters whom Rockwell greatly admired — such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock — considered essential to the expansive soul of painting.

In 1997 the artist Laurie Simmons interviewed Rockwell’s oldest son, Jarvis, a voracious toy collector, for Artforum magazine. She asked him if his father had felt excluded from the contemporary art scene, and he replied, “See, he felt that he was an illustrator. I think everybody, even an illustrator, would like to be considered so fine that they were maybe not quite an illustrator. But he knew he was an illustrator.… He felt like time was going by him.” When Simmons asked, “Well, did your father ever talk about modern art to his sons?” Jarvis replied, “Yeah. One time I went to see my father, he was in the city. And he was sitting there on the bed with his pajamas on. And he had a de Kooning and a Piero della Francesca postcard on the pillow. And he’s looking at them: ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I just can’t — I just don’t understand.’ ”

For Rockwell, family was the bedrock of his personal view of the world. In such a moment from his own family life, one gets a sense of the melancholic ambiguity that would never make it into his pictures, but somehow makes them all the more fascinating.  ❖