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How Do You Paint Wartime Unity? Ask Norman Rockwell

Updated: Sep 24, 2022


It took months, but Norman Rockwell finally found a way to portray unity through diversity in the midst of WWII.


Welcome to The Visual Home Front, a blog that’s long been on my bucket list and is now finally barging its way onto the stage. I’m your host, Jim Kimble (more about me on the main website, jamesjkimble.com). Every week, give or take a day or two, I’ll be sharing and commenting on a compelling visual artifact from an historical home front. Most of the images will be from the United States home front in World War II—which happens to be a place and time about which I’ve written a lot over the course of my career. However, I’m also editor of the academic journal Home Front Studies, and so I frequently find myself exploring the terrain of home fronts near and far. As a result, this blog will feature visual artifacts that emerged from multiple historical conflicts in places across the world.


A Rockwell Masterpiece

He later recalled that Worship gave him the most trouble.

This first outing starts with an image that’s well within my wheelhouse. In fact, there's a reproduction of this poster in my campus office. It’s an adaptation by the US Office of War Information (OWI) of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Worship, an oil-on-canvas painting whose public debut was on p. 13 of the Saturday Evening Post on February 27, 1943.


Some Quick Background


The image was the second of a set of four: Freedom of Speech preceded it, Freedom from Want followed, and Freedom from Fear brought up the rear. I relate the story behind the production of the entire series in the introduction to Enduring Ideals. The quick version is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced his Four Freedoms in his January 1941 Message to Congress. The US wasn’t yet at war—the Pearl Harbor attack was still 11 months in the future—but nonetheless FDR appears to have conceived of the Freedoms as war aims for the Allies.


His audience wasn’t having it.


For over two years FDR and his domestic propaganda team did everything they could think of to popularize the terms. Not until the Post published Rockwell’s four interpretations in early 1943 did the public finally embrace the Freedoms, setting them on a trajectory that would greatly influence the postwar world (including the founding of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, which enshrined the Four Freedoms for one and all).



Seven Months in the Making

The first attempt wasn't good enough.

Rockwell spent seven months working on his four canvases. He later recalled that Worship gave him the most trouble. His first attempt on this Freedom, which has survived, showed a variety of people representing different religions getting along quite nicely at a local barbershop. A similar setting would later appear in Shuffleton’s Barbershop, a Post cover from 1950. But here the scene felt too artificial.


A Serene Composition


He quickly abandoned the narrative approach in favor of what would become the final setup: a composition of a diverse group of Americans in prayer or contemplation. Here each individual again appears to represent a different religious tradition (with the possible exception of a figure whom Rockwell might have intended to represent an agnostic, since his right hand is not clasped in prayer but thoughtfully stroking his chin). Each figure is in full or partial profile. They face off stage to the viewer’s left, toward an unseen source of light. Their serene mood belies the poster’s propagandistic underpinnings.


Productive Propaganda


But the poster is propaganda, even if it’s the kind of propaganda whose intent is to unite rather than divide. Indeed, superimposed above the contemplative scene is a message celebrating the unity-in-diversity evoked by the placid congregation: “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Rockwell’s point would surely have been obvious to most of those in his vast 1943 viewing audience. Here is a group of Americans, he was suggesting, who have embraced their rich spiritual diversity and yet who are clearly gathered together peacefully, who unwittingly share similarly contemplative postures and facial expressions, and who each expectantly face the benevolent, unseen source of light.


It wasn’t the first message of unity that the US home front had seen during the war, to be sure. Immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, government, corporate, and private propagandists alike had presented countless appeals that depicted a seamlessly united nation at war. Even so, the country’s various fissures continued to make for an unstable and unpredictable civilian population for most of the conflict. Rockwell’s diverse-but-united appeal in Freedom of Worship likely benefited from a greater circulation than its predecessors, as it followed up its Post appearance by becoming an official Office of War Information poster that was printed in the millions, ending up on display alongside the other three Freedoms in libraries, post offices, banks, private homes, and just about everywhere else. It also benefited from Rockwell’s enormous personal popularity and homespun image.


The painting was thus well-positioned to encourage Americans, who were by early 1943 becoming exhausted by the war effort, to find hope in their differences and to be inspired by their diversity. No wonder this deceptively potent propaganda image continues to resonate all these years later.


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