Rockwell, patriotism and WWII at The Henry Ford

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Feeling a little hopeless about the American political experiment?

A cure for what ails you might be to wander through "Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms" at The Henry Ford, which focuses on the four Saturday Evening Post covers illustrating those freedoms that Norman Rockwell painted during World War II. But move quickly: the show, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, closes Jan. 13. 

"Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell.

While this sprawling exhibition targets Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" — freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear — it reaches well beyond those canvases to illustrate how President Roosevelt's administration recruited American artists in the war effort, as well as raising challenging questions about how this nation defined freedom then and now. 

While a good number of other artists are represented, Rockwell, quite naturally, dominates the galleries' dramatically lit walls. 

"The show is really is a tremendous presentation of the breadth of Rockwell’s work," said John Neilson, vice president of venues for The Henry Ford, "from his almost bucolic way of presenting everyday life in early illustrations, through the 1960s when his work is more representative of the society he lives in."

Interestingly, this is the second time Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" have visited Detroit. The first, Neilson said, was in the early 1940s to promote war bonds.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Fear," at The Henry Ford.

"I've seen black-and-white photos of a parade downtown past Hudson’s," he said, "but I'm not sure where the paintings were actually exhibited."

President Roosevelt first articulated the Four Freedoms in his State of the Union address in January 1941, 11 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor dragged America into the war. 

The Four Freedoms laid out the goals the U.S. would be willing to fight for, if the country were to enter the global conflict. In a secret meeting at sea with Winston Churchill seven months later, those ideals helped form the basis of the Atlantic Charter, the document that laid out Allied war aims. 

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want," at The Henry Ford.

"Enduring Ideals" provides useful context by reaching beyond Rockwell and the war itself. It opens, for example, with a short section of artworks depicting the Great Depression, including Dorothea Lange's 1935 "Migrant Mother," one of the most-famous documentary images of the 20th century. 

It then proceeds into a chirpy parade of paintings for 1930s Saturday Evening Post covers, featuring Rockwell at his homespun, humorous best. Fun examples include the 1936 "Barbershop Quartet," and "Marbles Champion" from 1939, in which a determined, red-haired little girl is beating the pants off the little boys. 

Once the war began, however, the Roosevelt administration worried the Four Freedoms hadn't caught on with either the public or the media, threatening to turn the noble declaration into an embarrassing public-relations flop.

Even more crucial, the lack of interest could sabotage the lofty idealism Roosevelt wanted to animate the entire war effort, and his desire to make the conflict about something bigger than just victory. 

Rockwell heeded the call, not just with the "Four Freedoms," but also with a series of illustrations starring his WWII everyman, "Willie Gillis," who appears in a range of humble service ranks, from Army to Navy. 

The show also features wartime work by other artists from the era, some of which were used in government posters, and others, like Mead Schaeffer's 1943 "Flight Controller on Aircraft Carrier," which ran as Post covers. 

Appropriately, the "Four Freedoms" are set off in a room by themselves, giving the large canvases, recognizable to virtually everyone, added punch. In a brilliant touch, there's a vitrine with letters to Rockwell prompted by the covers.

"Freedom of Worship" by Norman Rockwell.

One, demonstrating that angry xenophobia is as old as the republic, came from a T.C. Upham who complained that the faces in "Freedom of Worship" looked un-American, whether, in his words, "northeast Nordic, Slavic or Jew. Where," he asked, "is the old American type?" 

Happily, "Enduring Ideals" reaches beyond the war to Rockwell's work in the 1960s, much of which focused on the Civil Rights movement — a topic the Post had no interest in, which caused the artist to quit after 47 years. 

"The Post wanted him to portray a way of life that no longer really existed," Neilson said.

Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With," which Look magazine published in 1964.

So Rockwell moved to Look, which was happy to have more controversial work, like his "The Problem We All Live With," painted in 1963. In that canvas, a tiny, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges is escorted to her first day in an all-white school by towering U.S. Marshalls. It's a powerful and disturbing image, even today. 

In a nice coda to the exhibition, the curators also included a range of work by contemporary artists on subjects connected to the idea of freedom that are still hotly debated today, like Bri Hermanson's "To Have and To Hold," in which two women share a wedding kiss. 

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy


'Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms'

Through Jan. 13

The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood, Dearborn 

Tickets to Henry Ford Museum only:

$23-adults, $21-seniors 62+, $17.25 youngsters 5-17; free - members

(313) 982-6001