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.

Seduction and Symbols

It’s not considered hip to like Norman Rockwell. But, fortunately, I gave up on the hip idea a long time ago (hence the madras shirts and khakis I wear). Last term, I suggested that one of my students look at the Norman Rockwell Four Freedoms. I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d suggested researching an obscure 14th century painter. This was a terrifying moment. People’s grandmothers like Norman Rockwell. I assumed everyone in the civilized world knew at least a few paintings. I was wrong, and that is the tragedy of today’s wayward youth. They all need a good dose of Rockwell’s wholesome small town. That would keep them away from the constant huffing.

Obviously, this world is a mythical place sort of like Pleasantville. Rockwell’s paintings go beyond the sentimental. They carry symbols and iconography that allow us to manufacture a clear narrative. It is not just a picture of the teacher’s birthday. The scene is set with a multitude of clues. The coat in her hand and chalk eraser on the floor communicates her surprise. A line of small gifts is on her desk. Each of these tells a story of the children preparing for this day at home, or on the walk to school. Even the tiny section of the American flag sets the scene in a minimal way.

The Problem We All Live With, painted in 1964, depicts Ruby Bridges walking to the newly integrated Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. It is the most requested piece at the Norman Rockwell Museum. This incredible painting succeeds with the use of a tool I often discuss, seduction. The unassuming and innocent approach welcomes the viewer into the piece, and then communicates a complicated and disturbing subject matter. The racial slurs on the wall, and thrown tomato contrast with the girl’s white dress and confident stride. The touch of a notebook with stars and the red and blue pencils suggests the American flag subtly. This is not sentimental, or purely journalistic. Rockwell was a genius at utilizing symbols, color, and scene to convey a narrative in a single moment.