‘Four Freedoms’ Exhibition Brings Norman Rockwell’s Iconic Paintings to GW

Exhibit at the GW Museum and The Textile Museum also includes civil rights works “The Problem We All Live With” and “Murder in Mississippi.”

A visitor to the GW University Museum and The Textile Museum views Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. (Harrison Jones/
A visitor to the GW University Museum and The Textile Museum views Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
February 19, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

A comprehensive exhibition centered on Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” painting series arrived at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum this week as part of a seven-city international tour.

The exhibition includes not only the four large-scale original paintings but also models’ props, Mr. Rockwell’s drafts and sketches, and many complete later works that show the evolution of his thinking on freedom and civil rights. Notable paintings on display include “The Problem We All Live With,” “Murder in Mississippi,” “The Right to Know,” selections from his “Willie Gillis” series and more.

The exhibition, “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” also includes a selection of contemporaneous documentary material and propaganda surrounding the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, placing the four freedoms in context. Its final section showcases contemporary artwork on the theme of freedom today.

“Enduring Ideals” was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and presentation of the exhibition at GW is supported by the Albert H. Small Center for National Capital Area Studies and the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts.

George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum Director John Wetenhall said the exhibition combines the center’s focus on national icons and ideals with GW’s numerous perspectives and resources. GW is the only Washington, D.C., location and the only academic institution to host “Enduring Ideals” on this tour.

“What we bring to the exhibition, I think, is the viewpoints of an enormously accomplished faculty and student body,” Dr. Wetenhall said. “And what we’ve tried to do here is bring programs to the exhibition to activate conversations on freedom throughout the campus.”

The Four Freedoms’ Origin

In his January 1941 State of the Union address, 11 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the four essential freedoms he saw as universal human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Two years later, with the United States embroiled in World War II, the speech inspired Mr. Rockwell—already an established master whose illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post arrived weekly in millions of American households—to create a series of paintings based on those ideals.

After the Post published the series in 1943, public response was overwhelming. The Post received 25,000 reprint requests. Indeed, the images proved so popular that the U.S. Department of the Treasury partnered with the magazine to take them on a 16-city national tour, at which visitors who purchased war bonds would receive reproductions of all four. The tour raised more than $130 million in bond and stamp sales, and Mr. Rockwell’s visual narratives helped shape the way a generation of Americans thought about their country, their ideals and the war.

But the artistic origins of some of the paintings were fairly humble, co-curators James Kimble and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett said. “Freedom of Speech,” for instance, originated from a town hall meeting in Mr. Rockwell’s hometown. At a debate about whether to rebuild a burned-out public school, only one voice spoke out in dissent: a local farmer who said he couldn’t afford to pay the higher taxes a rebuilt school would demand. Citizens listened while the farmer spoke. Then, overwhelmingly, they voted him down.

“We know that all these people are going to vote against the speaker’s perspective,” said Dr. Kimble, a professor at Seton Hall University. “But they’re listening respectfully to his opinion and allowing him to express it."

An Artist’s Props

The suede jacket Mr. Rockwell’s model wore for “Freedom of Speech” is on display in the exhibition, looking battered but instantly recognizable. Passed on to Mr. Rockwell’s assistant, Gene Pelham, it met an appropriately prosaic fate: Mr. Pelham wore it until it was falling apart, after which he began to rip strips of cloth from the arms and back and use them to polish his car. (The jacket was eventually saved by his horrified daughter, Dr. Plunkett said.)

In contrast, the exhibition also includes a piece of model memorabilia the owners kept pristine: the white frock worn by child model Linda Gunn for “The Problem We All Live With,” Mr. Rockwell’s 1964 depiction of desegregation.

Dr. Plunkett remembered visiting an older Ms. Gunn in her modest apartment, where the former model reverently pulled from a closet the dress she’d worn as a child. It was still wrapped in its dry cleaning plastic. “My mother had this cleaned in the ’60s,” Dr. Plunkett remembered her saying.

A highly literal artist, Mr. Rockwell was specific and meticulous in his use of props. In “Freedom from Fear,” which depicts parents tucking in their sleeping children, the words “bombings” and “horror” are visible on a newspaper headline in the father’s hand. Mr. Rockwell actually had a local newspaper mock up a version with that headline, Dr. Plunkett said.

He went to even greater—and more horrifying—lengths for the haunting “Murder in Mississippi,” also on display at the museum, which depicts the real-life murders of three civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan.

“He actually procured human blood to get a sense of what that would look like on his model,” Dr. Plunkett said. (Unlike Mr. Pelham’s jacket and and Ms. Gunn’s dress, this gruesome costume element is not part of the exhibit.)

Freedom Today

On the museum’s third floor, “Enduring Ideals” displays the results of a juried competition in which contemporary artists respond to Mr. Rockwell’s work and themes. In Maurice “Pops” Peterson’s “Freedom from What?” a modern day African-American couple leans over their sleeping children. Unlike the placid parents in “Freedom from Fear,” the couple seem alert, defensive, keenly aware of threats from the outside.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, said “Enduring Ideals” has a particular contemporary resonance.

“Just like in the 1940s and 1960s, when war was raging, we’re in a time of change propelled by awakenings of our social consciousness,” she said.  “One of the loftier aims of this exhibition is to remind us of a set of ideals that all people could rally around in a time of great urgency. There are things we can agree on in a time of disagreement about how to move forward. These works inspire us to aspire to be our best selves.”

A “Transformational” Gift

A Tuesday night special reception for the opening of “Enduring Ideals” featured short speeches by members of the GW community on each of the four freedoms. After a welcome from Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs Donna Arbide, senior Caroline Corbett, from the School of Media and Public Affairs, addressed freedom of speech; junior Luis Otero-Bravo, from the School of Business, addressed freedom from want; Atem Malak, M.A. ’18, addressed freedom from fear; and professor Sam Goldman, executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at GW, addressed freedom of worship.

President LeBlanc stands with members of community in front of green wall, The George Washington University

Caroline Corbett, Sam Goldman, Thomas LeBlanc, Atem Malak, Luis Otero-Bravo and Donna Arbide. (Photo: Abby Greenawalt)

Dr. Goldman thanked former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark John L. Loeb, Jr., who was in the audience, for his 2016 gift establishing the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at GW. He also announced that Mr. Loeb has made a new philanthropic commitment that will expand and enhance the institute, details of which will be shared in the coming months.

“His new commitment truly is transformational and reinforces GW’s stature as a leader in protecting the values of religious freedom in our country and around the world,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said.

Dr. LeBlanc also noted that President Roosevelt’s original “Four Freedoms” address was slow to resonate with the American public. It was through artists like Norman Rockwell that his ideals were amplified, and through their work that Americans came to accept the four freedoms as bedrock democratic principles.

“I see that power of amplification as a crucial part of our work as an institution of higher learning,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “Each of us at GW has the power—and the responsibility—to embrace the ideals of the Four Freedoms, to advocate for the values they represent and to ensure that they endure for future generations.”

Other events surrounding the opening included special receptions for students and museum members, as well as a GW Culture Buffs tour for alumni and friends that featured faculty-led gallery talks.

“Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” will be on view through April 29. Visit the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum website for visiting hours, a schedule of affiliated events and more.

University News, Arts & Culture, Ruth Steinhardt