The Problem We All Live With- Norman Rockwell
Oil on Canvas
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Norman Rockwell, one of America’s most beloved illustrators, also depicted examples of social injustice and violence in American life. Rockwell is and most famously known for his Saturday Evening Post covers that depicted an ideal United States. However, Rockwell’s civil rights era images clearly depict his passion for racial tolerance and equality. Rockwell’s activism in the Civil Rights Movement remains seminal, as his style of illustrated art was commonly associated with conservative politics. Rockwell broke the stereotype of the profile of the art activist by making liberal critiques through an artistic style that was most associated with depictions of nostalgic American life and conservative white Americans.
There is a drastic shift in his depictions of African-Americans between Rockwell’s early and later works. In a 1971 interview, Rockwell stated that George Horace Lorimer, the chief editor of the Post for the first twenty years of Rockwell’s career at the magazine, told him to “never show colored people except as servants.” Thus, it seems that during Rockwell’s early career, he did not have complete control over his subject matter, and was not able to produce the images he may have wanted. By 1964, Rockwell left his position at the Post and started to work with Look Magazine. The magazine must have appealed to Rockwell, because of its early involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, Look was one of the first national magazines to address the growing racial tensions in the South. The magazine’s early stance against racial injustice likely played an important role in his choosing to work there. Look Magazine editor, Dan Mich, and art director, Allen Hurburt, gave Rockwell the freedom to make the controversial images that he was forbidden to create at the Saturday Evening Post. Thus, in subject matter and attitude, there is a significant difference between Rockwell’s images portraying African Americans in The Saturday Evening Post and in Look Magazine
Rockwell’s first illustration for Look Magazine, The Problem We All Live With, debuted on January 14, 1964. The oil painting shows first grader Ruby Bridges, escorted by four federal marshals, walking into the newly desegregated New Orleans’ William Frantz Public School. Contemporary viewers of the image would have known of the debate over school desegregation and Ruby Bridges’ story. In the landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court deemed that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Despite this ruling, New Orleans did not integrate its school until the fall of 1960. Bridges was not only the sole African American enrolled in the school, but also the only student in her class. Angry white parents outraged at the idea of having their children share a classroom with a black child deferred their children’s enrollment in the school for a year.
Rockwell used the painting to address the widespread problem of racism in America. Bridges appears just as likeable, innocent, and sweet as many of the girls featured in his illustrations. However, he shows that Bridges’ race made her a target of racial prejudice, hatred, and violence. Painted from the visual perspective of an observing child, Rockwell places the viewer into Bridges’ shoes. The viewer is forced to wonder how Bridges reacted to having tomatoes thrown at her, the remnants of which can be seen sliding down the wall. They are also made to wonder if she notices or even understands the meaning and gravity of the “KKK” and the epithet “NIGGER” written on the pale white wash of the wall. Rockwell found it unacceptable that a child would require federal protection to receive her basic right to an education. Through the painting, Rockwell showed that racism was not a problem limited to the South, but a problem that affected all of America. Look’s nationwide circulation gave Rockwell the resource to send this strong message directly into the homes of millions of readers.