- Important: All passwords were reset on 06/15/11. Old passwords will no longer work. Click here to retrieve your password.
- Subscribe to Our Free Dewsletter
We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
Rockwell painting nudged nation
In 1964, artist Norman Rockwell, the well-known illustrator of iconic images of the American dream, unveiled the first of his civil rights paintings, “The Problem We All Live With.” It’s very likely you have seen this painting that debuted in a two-page spread in Look magazine. It’s very different from most of Rockwell’s work.
The painting shows a full-length profile of a young black girl in a white dress and tennis shoes on a sidewalk. She’s sandwiched between two pairs of federal marshals. You can’t see the full bodies of the marshals – just from their shoulders to their shoes. Scrawled on a wall that serves as the painting’s background is the nasty word, “Nigger.” Scratched at another place is “K.K.K.” The only vivid color in the piece, marked mostly by its muted grays, tans and yellows, is the carcass of a red tomato. It lay on the ground, splattered just below where it hit the wall.
“The Problem” is a simple, but remarkable work. North Carolina artist Kenneth W. Laird, who did his master’s degree thesis on this and other paintings, calls Rockwell’s piece “arguably the single most important image ever done of an African American in illustration history.”
Part of the reason is Rockwell, himself. Viewed during his career as a “conservative artist” whose work represented an ideal America, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post in 1963 after 47 years of illustrating kids at soda shops, dogs, patriotic themes, family life and other All-American subjects.
The 1960 story of how six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first black girl in New Orleans to attend a white school inspired Rockwell, an early member of the NAACP.
In “retirement,” he started working on subjects that represented greater diversity of American life. Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, described the artist’s move to more realistic subjects in a Sunday story in the South Florida Times:
“He was very socially concerned, but he wasn’t able to paint that in the Post because of editorial policies. I think it was very liberating for him as well to be able to paint on a wider spectrum of subjects, and [he] was particularly able to create a bridge for people to see the unfairness, the anger, the meanness and the injustices that were happening to our children all over the United States.”
Murray Tinkelman, an award-winning illustrator who is a professor emeritus at Syracuse University, highlighted the impact of “The Problem” to Laird. For the John F. Kennedy’s American public, not yet pummeled into submission by media from television, cell phones and the Internet, Rockwell was an artist “embraced by the most conservative elements in our country [who] would make these people stop and think that maybe there is a problem. And the problem is racism. Purely and simply.”
Singer Andy Williams, a Rockwell fan, noted in a book about Rockwell’s America, that the artist didn’t always paint about the happy moments in American life: “He wasn’t afraid to show us what was happening in America – the good and the bad. His painting ‘The Problem We All Live With’ makes us feel the shame of segregation in America. It shows a young black girl being escorted by guards to an integrated school in the South, when racial segregation was the norm. I think it’s a great painting and exemplifies the greatness of Norman Rockwell.”
A framed print of this Rockwell painting has been on my office wall for several years. It’s worth looking at every day to remind us how far we’ve come … and how far we still have to go.
Photo: Visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum look at “The Problem.” Photo by Jeremy Clowe. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.
Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report (www.statehousereport.com) and Charleston Currents (www.charlestoncurrents.com). He is chairman and president of the Center for a Better South (www.bettersouth.org).
More information on this story: Ken Laird’s thoughts on the painting: http://hubpages.com/hub/The-Problem-We-All-Live-With—Norman-Rockwell-the-truth-about-his-famous-painting
Norman Rockwell Museum: http://www.nrm.org
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
The feeling of your tires losing traction on an icy road is hard to label. You'd think it might feel like falling, a sudden stop or start, a gut-twisting vertigo as the ground drops away, but it's not that dramatic. Instead of physics slapping you with your own momentum, you feel, perhaps, like the road has just started lying to you. The motions of your hands and feet, something you've felt so very confident in for years, aren't following through on their promise. You're clearly steering in one direction, applying just so much pressure to the pedals, but the road Read on →
An open letter to my elected, so-called representatives This present Australian Government is trotting dog-like down the path to destruction behind its conservative counterparts in the US and elsewhere, bent on transforming us into a society where the environment, the economy and the national social conscience are left to the tender mercies of the free market and corporate “self-regulation”. Already under threat from human-induced climate change, the Great Barrier Reef now faces the added burden of an assault by coal producers. The hard won – and publicly supported – World Heritage areas of Tasmania are facing fragmentation, and for no appreciable economic benefit Read on →
HB 1023 and SB 377 are now slithering through the dank halls of Georgia’s government. These bills would allow business owners to openly discriminate against gay Americans by denying them employment or services: banning them from restaurants, hotels etc. (Translation: anybody who wishes to discriminate against someone for any reason need only say that it’s because it’s part of their “personal religion”.) The so-called "Preservation of Religious Freedom Act" would, in effect, permit any individual or for-profit company to ignore Georgia's anti-discrimination and civil rights laws. Legal experts warn that such "religious-freedom" bills are so vague and all-encompassing that they fling the doors wide Read on →
What would winning the War in Afghanistan look like? America has been at war there for 13 years and you would expect that after thousands of casualties and spending immense sums of our tax dollars something that could be deemed victory would have been achieved by now. Instead of that we are presented with soon to be retiring Rep. Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, chiding the America people and President Obama for not wanting to keep fighting the longest war in our history. In a February 24th speech to National Press Club the California Rep Read on →