Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

In January 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address highlighting his idea of the Four Freedoms. These include freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called ‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” 

From February through March 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published essays on each of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Norman Rockwell's paintings illustrated each of these themes. These became the highlight of a touring exhibition sponsored by The Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The exhibition and accompanying sales drives of war bonds raised over $132 million.

We know these images. They have been reproduced, parodied, and used in advertising for over fifty years. It is easy to dismiss them as sentimental nostalgia. But they are remarkable and deserve more attention.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943

Freedom From Want is the most well known. The compositional elements echo each other; the shape of the turkey is similar to the older couple and tureen. The wallpaper references the celery on the table. And, most importantly, you, the viewer is sitting at the table. The figure on the bottom right corner looks directly at you. Freedom From Want is not about gluttony. It is about being surrounded by family and the larger community.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943

I love the cues Rockwell gives us in Freedom of Speech. The blue collar worker (with the blue collar) has the same level of importance as the banker in a white shirt and tie next to him. The response of the other members in the meeting is respectful. Nobody is hurling insults, racial slurs, or chanting threats.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Fear, 1943

The sliver of light on the right side on Freedom From Fear is the key element. It tells us that this is a warm home. The children are being tucked in, not locked in a dark attic. The headline on the newspaper referring to bombings points at the doll, lying on the floor. 

But, perhaps today, Freedom of Worship is the most salient. Individuals from multiple faiths are represented. This is not a celebration of only Christian values. It allows for any kind of belief, each according to the dictates of his own conscience. As Roosevelt said, "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose."


Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

For Purple Mountain Majesties

It’s hard to imagine a time when the government actually promoted the graphic arts. Yes, it’s true. It was once considered a respectable vocation, not just a haven for leftist intellectuals. Between 1935 and 1943, the Federal Art Project was created to encourage American design and art. It was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. The federal government created the WPA to help restore the economy during the Great Depression by employing Americans in every industry. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a lengthy essay on the ramifications and legacies of this leading to Johnson’s Great Society. Let’s stick to the travel posters; they’re a safer subject.

These posters promoted travel in the United States. They take advantage of the limited printing technologies available and use simple shapes to create depth. The colors are unexpected, but never seem incorrect. The Grand Canyon is a study in pink and purple. Lassen Volcanic National Park's poster has a plum colored lake and avocado green sky. Often, the posters employ a strong foreground and extreme shadows. The result is a dramatic and grand landscape similar to a Bierstadt painting. The attraction posters at Disneyland designed 20 years later, employee the same techniques.

What is remarkable to me is the clarity of each poster. They each have a strong point of view and do not appear to be designed by a committee. But, the federal government was the client, so maybe every poster was subjected to 100 committees suggesting a nice blue sky, some culturally, age, and racially diverse happy people, representation of all the available activities, colors that are more lifelike, and more detail. After all, will anyone be able to recognize the blue shapes on the left as mountains?