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Rockwell’s Four Freedoms in the 21st century and rethinking art as history

How great is the Smithsonian? Seriously. Take a few minutes to think about all the teaching goodness that they provide. Learning Lab. History Explorer. Lesson plans. Podcasts. Webcasts. It goes on and on.

But there’s always been a bit of old school in me. So I still subscribe to the print version of the Smithsonian magazine. Yes. You can get many of the print articles at the online version but I like turning pages.

The problem, of course, is between online versions of things and print versions of things, I’m always playing catch-up with my reading schedule. The March Smithsonian just now just made it to the top of the pile and I was blown away by an article by Abigail Tucker.

Titled A 21st-Century Reimagining of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, the article focuses on the question:

The iconic paintings helped the U.S. win World War II. What do they mean today?

We’ve all heard of the Four Freedoms. In January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress and outlined the values worth fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Tucker’s article highlights the less than tepid response by the American public:


And it’s likely that’s where the Freedoms would have remained without the genius of Norman Rockwell. He shared the same initial reaction as most other Americans:

The language was so noble, platitudinous really, that it stuck in my throat.

But as an illustrator, Rockwell saw potential. In 1943, he convinced editors at the Saturday Evening Post to give him four magazine covers to share his version of the Four Freedoms. Instant success. The four images became iconic and help raised millions of dollars worth of war bonds between 1943 and 1945.

Why were his images so successful? Stephanie Plunkett, curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, suggests that “what people needed was some understanding of how these ideals applied to their own lives. So Rockwell wanted to show what we had to protect, and what we were fighting for.” He depicted the American day-to-day.

And it worked.

But take a closer look. And ask your kids to do the same. What do they have in common? What are they missing? Many of you’ve already got it. And many of your kids might notice before you do.

In 1943, America was almost 90% white. Today? Racial minorities make up a much larger percentage of who we are. And the current religious landscape has changed as well with very diverse practices and beliefs. Rockwell’s four iconic images were successful because for the most part, they depicted the America of 1943. Tucker describes how Rockwell’s subjects were overwhelmingly white, with men usually in the foreground. A common theme was Rockwell’s neighbor Jim Martin, who appears in all four paintings.

So the Smithsonian wanted to know: what would the Four Freedoms look like in 2018? Is it possible to still tell the story of who we are using a 1943 template like Rockwell’s? Is there a theme that would run through the four re-envisioned images? So they commissioned four artists to try.

The results? Pretty amazing. Take a look.

Freedom of Speech:

Freedom of Worship:

Freedom from Want:

Freedom from Fear:

The reason the article grabbed my attention are the incredible possibilities this sort of project has for us as social studies teachers. Tucker talks of how Rockwell “juggled” the meaning of the Four Freedoms in his head before approaching the Post editors. Think of the juggling that could happen in your classrooms: the writing prompts, the possible products, the other paintings, photos, texts, short stories, and novels that could receive the same re-imagining.

  • What was Rockwell thinking when he created his images? What was his inspiration? Did his context of Vermont make a difference? Would the images have looked different if he was in the Midwest? The South? The West? British? French? German? Russian?
  • What would the images have looked like if a member of the 442nd infantry regiment comprised of second generation Japanese Americans had created them? How about a member of the Tuskegee Airmen?
  • Perhaps ask your students to develop their own versions of the Four Freedoms before showing them Smithsonian’s versions. What would their images look like? Would they look the same or different from a classroom located in a different neighborhood? A different city? Region? Rural? Urban?
  • Would the four images in the article look similar or different than those of your students?
  • Ask your students to create their own “artist statements” for their images. How might those statements sound the same or different than what Rockwell and the current artists wrote?
  • What were the current artists “juggling” in their heads before creating their versions?
  • Is there a common theme through all four 2018 versions? What is that theme? How do you know? Could you convince someone that you’re right?
  • What other iconic images and texts can we look at?
  • How committed are we to the freedoms articulated by FDR and brought to life by Rockwell?

Be sure to take advantage of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and its useful resources. The teacher guides, lesson plans, and other portrait highlights can help you and your students analyze these different forms of primary sources.

The compelling question that Tucker asks in her last paragraph:

Can we extend the freedoms we enjoy to someone who doesn’t look like us, think like us, or worship like us?

Together with both the Rockwell and current versions, this seems like a great way to open a whole variety of lessons and units. How could you use it?

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

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