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