Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom-Resources for Kids

The current exhibition Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom presents renowned illustrator Norman Rockwell’s (1894-1978), take on the challenge of depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concept called the Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—to persuade Americans to support the World War II war effort. The exhibition is historic, focusing on events that shaped America from the Great Depression through the Civil Rights era. By nature, illustrations often only tell one side of a story from the artist’s point of view.

In addition to the Four Freedoms theme, this exhibition shines a light on the complexities of freedom, American identity, and representation. We have compiled a few activities and resources to help families and children of all ages engage further with the themes highlighted in the exhibition.

With our youngest viewers, we recommend diving into these concepts through the lens of recognizing different portrayals of families. We encourage our elementary-age artists to explore the power of illustration through poster-making and a fun drawing game to provoke critical conversations about representation. For a more in-depth exploration with tweens or teens, analyze the context in which art was created guided by our critical idea-catcher handout.

Golden Rule Rockwell
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Golden Rule, 1961. Oil on canvas, 44 ½" x 39 ½". Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1961. Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN. All rights reserved. 

Looking Together

Rockwell’s illustrations of the Four Freedoms reflect a certain time, and only certain citizens, creating an idealized image of an America that left very little room for groups of underrepresented people. Look and learn together with these activities.

Compare two portraits of families from the DAM’s Collection, Delancy Gill’s photograph Family of George Mayor Cook, Group of Eight, Near Wood Frame Building and Thomas Hudson’s painting The Radcliffe Family.

Every family looks different, and only you know the full story about what makes your family unique and special. This children’s book recommendation includes guiding questions to have a meaningful discussion about families. Extend your time together by drawing, painting or collaging an artwork to represent your own family!

Keep the family reflection rolling with this lesson plan inspired by Roxanne Swentzell’s sculpture Mud Woman Rolls On.

Creating Together

Whatever contribution I made to the war effort was through my work—posters, post covers of wartime scenes, The Four Freedoms.

—Norman Rockwell

In Rockwell's time, richly illustrated magazines featured aspirational images of idealized standards of living that reflected and shaped visual culture, public perception, and consumption. Artists, therefore, played a crucial role in defining cultural beliefs and standards.

Take some time as a family or group to play this game which starts with an images and allows you to literally illustrate how a message can be altered by one’s own personal experiences. Based on the classic game "telephone," Drawing Conclusions is a thought-provoking activity to experiment and address issues of representation and identity in art through drawing, writing and discussion. After playing this game revisit images from Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom. Use these discussion questions to look critically at the stories Rockwell is telling in his illustrations.

  • What might have shaped the way that Rockwell is telling stories?
  • As viewers, we interpret artists’ images through our own experiences. What understanding or experience are you bringing to these artworks?
  • How have these ideas changed since he made the paintings in the mid-1900s?

The exhibition also features iconic contemporary artists from the DAM’s Collection. Shepard Fairey often addresses issues of social and political significance, as in his iconic 2008 “Hope” poster for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Taking its name from the first line of the U.S. constitution, the series “We the People” features portraits of women of different racial and cultural backgrounds in Fairey’s trademark style and simplified color palette. With slogans such as “We the People . . . Are Greater than Fear,” Fairey’s posters reinforce the endurance of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms concept, updated for today’s America. Continue to consider the power of words with this lesson spark which encourages you to create a poster emphasizing the relationship between words and images inspired by Wes Wilson’s 1966 poster Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco.

Thinking Together

This exhibition chronicles important events that shaped America from the Great Depression through the Civil Rights era and beyond. As you explore the galleries or the online guide, we invite you to question what unseen influences might have contributed to Rockwell’s illustrations. What personal experiences influence your interpretation today as you consume these images?

Download and print this idea-catcher as you explore any artwork or collection of artworks.

When telling stories, artists constantly make decisions (consciously and unconsciouly) about how to interpret things and what to show. In My Life as an Illustrator: The Definitive Edition Rockwell stated: “The view of life that I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly.” In other words, for much of his career, Rockwell preferred to create feel-good images that did not necessarily portray the reality of the world around him.

Rockwell isn’t the only artist who took liberties portraying reality. Sometimes the danger lies in the subtlety of not acknowledging the artist’s license. Check out how Girolamo da Cremona represented a classic poem and bring attention to what decisions the artist made as you sketch your own images related to the text in this activity. Compare your interpretation with the images portrayed in The Triumphs paintings.

Though Rockwell was working over fifty years ago, the conversation is still relevant. What do the Four Freedoms mean today? Explore how contemporary artists respond to themes of freedom and American identity and join the conversation! What has changed? Share your thoughts on Instagram and Twitter by using #FourFreedomsToday so that your response can be streamed in the gallery and online for others to read and reflect upon.