- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

The first surprise is their size. You think of them as pages in the Saturday Evening Post magazine, but the originals on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings That Inspired a Nation” are large oil paintings.

The second is to learn that what are perhaps the best-known examples of propaganda art from World War II not only were not commissioned by the Roosevelt administration, but actually were rejected by Washington when Mr. Rockwell first offered them.

From Washington, Mr. Rockwell took the train to the editorial offices of the Post in Philadelphia and sold the pictures to the magazine, to which he was a regular contributor.

Several artists had been invited to depict Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic “Four Freedoms” radio address in 1941, but it is mainly in Rockwell’s quartet that the association between speech and paintings has endured.

This is because in 1943, the government reversed its earlier decision and sent the four paintings on a nationwide tour to promote war bonds, the famous drive to borrow money from the nation to help pay for the war. Such was the popularity of Mr. Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” that the tour raised a record $132 million.

Hanging in an octagonal space at the Corcoran as part of the Memorial Day celebrations marking the inauguration of the finally completed National World War II Memorial, the paintings recall a long-gone age free from ambivalence and nagging doubt of the rightness of the cause.

Sketches, small oil studies and documents shed light on the artist’s creative process. We discover, for example, that Mr. Rockwell originally located his “Freedom of Worship” painting in a barber shop, where people are gathered for prayer. The final version, of course, is a frieze of faces in profile in prayerful attitudes.

Today, Mr. Rockwell comes in for criticism from some quarters as nothing more than a facile magazine illustrator, but in one respect, the “Four Freedoms” are subtle works. The sense of what is at stake is more evident in some than in others — less so, for example, in the cheerful Thanksgiving dinner than in the picture of parents watching their sleeping young children.

Yet nowhere is the enemy — the danger — in evidence. There are no mysterious dark shadows or posters with ominous headlines. In 1943, Mr. Rockwell didn’t have to spell it out, and he knew it. The dogs of war were straining on the leash. He could leave the enemy to the imagination of the beholder.

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