My Musings

The Art of Freedom

The Art of Freedom

Some leaders use great words to manipulate the masses. “Freedom” is one such word. Nearly every tyrant in history has used “freedom” in promising, glowing and demagogic ways. It is wise to look beyond mere words.

Art can help. It can carry themes like liberty beyond the realm of mere words. Of course, art can also be abused to distort and manipulate but it can also uncover needs and notions that words alone keep hidden. Art can shed a brighter light on the path of culture to reach a wider swath of hearts and enable the forces of good to outshine evil. Art has a power to inspire beyond words.

Liberty has inspired great art over the ages. Great art, in turn, has inspired greater love for liberty. Below are a few examples of art elevating our love for liberty.

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17,1775” (1786), by John Trumbull (1759-1843). The Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Revolution came to America in 1776 and no painter recorded its events and ideals like John Trumbull (1759-1843). His classic, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17,1775” was created eleven years after the event it idealized. Joseph Warren (1741 – 1775) was a citizen doctor who embodied all the idealism of his era. His passion for freedom led to a very real sacrifice—one that Trumbull (an artist with one good eye) commemorated on canvas in 1786. Consider what President Ronald Reagan said about Dr. Warren in his First Inaugural Address (January 20, 1981):

    On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, …said to his fellow Americans, ‘Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.

A few years later, revolution came to France. The French Revolution (1789 to 1794) is a classic case featuring the abuse of the word liberty. The road to the Reign of Terror was greased by words like Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité (French for freedom, equality and brotherhood or solidarity). Those words convey noble ideals and often fell on sincere ears, but the overall impact was excessively bloody. Empire-hunger and the monarchy soon returned with the usual oppression through Napoleon and another succession of kings. A generation later, liberty lovers rose up in the July Revolution of 1830 to topple King Charles X. To support this spirit of liberty, Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863), personified liberty on canvas as a woman leading Frenchmen forward over the bodies of the fallen victims of tyranny. The bodies served as a pedestal from which Liberty takes her stride. Delacroix told his brother, “If I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” In 1831, he created, “Liberty Leading the People” (see above) to inspire France for another shot at freedom.

Statue of LIberty

Delacroix inspired Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s (1834 –1904) Statue of Liberty which France later gave to the United States to celebrate freedom. A noble lady is again enlisted to carry the torch for freedom. While Delacroix’s painting depicts the advance toward liberty, Bartholdi’s statue stands up for freedom already achieved.

“Ride for Liberty—the Fugitive Slaves” (oil on board, Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA), Eastman Johnson (1824 – 1906).

The hard won liberty won in 18th century America did not include everyone. Slavery persisted into the mid-19th century. The American painter, Eastman Johnson (1824 – 1906), spoke for the hunger for liberty in the hearts of countless slaves with his compelling “Ride for Liberty—the Fugitive Slaves” (March 2, 1862). A brave black family flees to Union lines during the Civil War at dawn, risking all for freedom. Father and son focus forward for freedom while mother, with infant, peels her eyes for danger.

“Spirit of '76" (1875), Archibald MacNeal Willard (1836 –1918)

Archibald MacNeal Willard (1836 –1918) is far less known than his most famous painting, “Spirit of ’76,” previously known as “Yankee Doodle” (1875). Willard, a Civil War veteran, was inspired by a parade through his town square in Wellington, Ohio. Notice the wounded soldier at the bottom waving the marchers on.

“The Four Freedoms” (1943), Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)

A century later, as World War II raged in 1943, Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) looked to a 1941 speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt for the inspiration to craft “The Four Freedoms.” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want). It’s first exhibition raised $132 million in war bonds. Rockwell’s illustrations were initially criticized as overly idyllic and nostalgic. Art put to positive use often gets criticized but Rockwell knew the heart of the American people too well to be discouraged. His four portrayals carry the case for freedom beyond the word itself to other realms necessary for freedom to thrive, like faith, family, moral conviction and gratitude. Rockwell’s brush declared the co-dependence of freedom and morality.

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, understood something about liberty that Rockwell captured but many of his critics missed, along with the 18th century leaders of the French Revolution. She said:

    Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the church, the family, and the school.

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About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.