What does it mean to be an American?
It is a question many people are grappling with, especially in the wake of the 2016 election. And it is one of the reasons the New-York Historical Society’s coming exhibition, “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” is so powerful.
“We planned this before Trump got elected, but it’s taken on a different resonance since,” said Margaret K. Hofer, the museum director.
The traveling exhibition, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., hearkens back to Jan. 6, 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want — in his annual address.
“We had a president who showed leadership by outlining four simple answers to the question of, what does it mean to be an American?” said Louise Mirrer, the historical society’s president and chief executive. “America was a great democracy. It needed to project its democratic principles wherever they were being snuffed out around the world.”
The United States declared war on Japan 11 months after Roosevelt’s speech, but the nation did not rally behind the war.
The Ordnance Department of the United States Army commissioned Mr. Rockwell to do a painting. That became “Let’s Give Him Enough and On Time,” of a machine-gunner in need of ammunition. But Mr. Rockwell wanted to do more for the war effort and decided to illustrate Roosevelt’s four freedoms.
“The story goes that he attends a town meeting in his hometown of Arlington, Vt.,” Ms. Hofer said, “and a local man stands up to voice an unpopular opinion but everyone listens respectfully. All of a sudden Rockwell realizes this is freedom of speech in action, that he can depict the ideals in terms the American public can really grasp.”
Mr. Rockwell brought his sketches to Washington, but the Ordnance Department did not have the resources for them. On his trip home he stopped in the offices of The Saturday Evening Post, in Philadelphia, and the editor Ben Hibbs snapped them up. He ran them in four sequential issues in February and March 1943; the government later turned the images into posters, raising $132 million for the war effort.
Original copies of The Saturday Evening Post are on display at the New-York Historical Society; using virtual reality technology, visitors can hop into each of the paintings and explore at closer range.
The historical society show, which opens at the end of May, will be divided into five sections. “The War Generation” section begins with a look at the political and socioeconomic climate in which Roosevelt articulated the Four Freedoms, along with a recording of one of his fireside chats from 1938. “FDR’s Freedoms” turns to Roosevelt’s proclamation of the Four Freedoms as a reason to enter the war. “The Artistic Response to the Four Freedoms Ideals” includes paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints and stamps, by the artists who heeded Roosevelt’s call. “Rockwell’s Four Freedoms” tells the story of the painter’s vision of the freedoms, while “Freedom’s Legacy” explores Mr. Rockwell’s continuing focus on human rights.
Along with the original Four Freedoms, Mr. Rockwell’s painting “The Golden Rule,” which graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1961, is on view. So is his 1963 painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts an African-American girl being escorted by four United States marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans, based on the story of Ruby Bridges. “The Right to Know,” about the need for government transparency, was inspired by the Vietnam War in 1968.
“We think of Rockwell as small-town America and the mundaneness of everyday life,” Ms. Mirrer said, “but a lot of his 1960s work is powerful and deals with really difficult issues.”
The Rockwell exhibit coincides with the historical society’s current exhibition, “Rebel Spirits: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.,” which commemorates the 50th anniversary of their assassinations. On view through May 20, the show features 60 photographs and 30 documents displaying intertwined trajectories of the two men, who were killed within about two months of each other.
“The year 1968 rocked the nation in many ways, but it would be difficult to point to anything that shocked and sickened Americans more that year than the senseless and tragic deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.,” Ms. Mirrer said. “Fifty years later, the legacies of Kennedy and King still reverberate.”
Highlights include images of Dr. King and his son looking at the charred remains of a cross the Ku Klux Klan burned outside his Atlanta home in 1960; his mug shot after being indicted during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama; and Mr. Kennedy being surrounded by fans during his 1968 presidential campaign.
“When you look at the promise that these two figures held out to the nation,” Ms. Mirrer said, “you’re also thinking of the question, what does it mean to be an American?”Tour Schedule
“Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” will be on view from May 25 to Sept. 2 at the New-York Historical Society. A companion exhibition, “Reimagining the Four Freedoms,” featuring contemporary interpretations of the Four Freedoms, will be on view at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College from May 26 to Sept. 2.
“Enduring Ideals” will travel to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., this fall; the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum in Washington in early 2019; Mémorial de Caen in Normandy, France, in time for the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2019; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in December; and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., in the fall of 2020.