"The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell - The Problem We All Live With, 1964
Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). The Problem We All Live With, 1964. Story illustration for Look, January 14, 1964. Oil on canvas. 36 x 58 in. (91.4 x 147.3 cm). From the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum. © The Norman Rockwell Estate / Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing Company, Niles, Illinois

On November 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges attended William J. Frantz Elementary School in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. It was her first day, as well as New Orleans' court-ordered first day of integrated schools.

If you weren't around in the late 50s-early 60s, it may be difficult to imagine just how contentious was the issue of desegregation. A great many people were violently opposed to it, and hateful, shameful things were said and done. There was an angry mob gathered outside of Frantz Elementary on November 14. Sadly, it wasn't a mob of malcontents or the dregs of society -- it was a mob of well-dressed, upstanding, housewives, shouting such awful obscenities that audio from the scene had to be masked in television coverage.

Ruby had to be escorted past this offensiveness by Federal Marshals. Naturally, the event made the nightly news and anyone who watched it became aware of the story. Norman Rockwell was no exception, and something about the scene -- visual, emotional or, perhaps, both -- lodged it into his artist's consciousness, where it waited until such time as it could be released.

In 1963 Norman Rockwell ended his long relationship with The Saturday Evening Post and began working with its competitor, LOOK. He approached Allen Hurlburt, the Art Director at LOOK, with an idea for a painting of (as Hurlburt wrote) " ... the Negro child and the marshals." Hurlburt was all for it, and told Rockwell it would merit " ... a complete spread with a bleed on all four sides. The trim size of this space is 21 inches wide by 13 1/4 inches high." Additionally, Hurlburt mentioned that he needed the painting by November 10th in order to run it in an early January, 1964 issue.

Rockwell Used Local Models

The child portrays Ruby Bridges as she walked to Frantz Elementary School surrounded, for her protection, by Federal Marshals. Of course, we didn't know her name was Ruby Bridges at the time; the press had not released her name out of concern for her safety. As far as most of the United States knew, she was a nameless six-year-old African American remarkable in her solitude and for the violence her small presence in a "Whites Only" school engendered.

Cognizant of only her gender and race, Rockwell enlisted the help of then-nine-year-old Lynda Gunn, the granddaughter of a family friend in Stockbridge. Gunn posed for five days, her feet propped at angles with blocks of wood in order to emulate walking. On the final day, Gunn was joined by the Stockbridge Chief of Police and three US Marshals from Boston.

Rockwell also shot a number of photographs of his own legs taking steps, in order to have more references of folds and creases in walking men's pant legs. All of these photographs, sketches, and quick painting studies were employed to create the finished canvas.

Technique and Medium

This painting was done in oils on canvas, as were all of Norman Rockwell's other works. You will note, too, that its dimensions are proportionate to the " ... 21 inches wide by 13 1/4 inches high" that Allen Hurlburt requested. Unlike other types of visual artists, illustrators always have space parameters in which to work.

The first thing that stands out in The Problem We All Live With is its focal point: the girl. She is slightly to the left of center but balanced by the large, red splotch on the wall right of center. Rockwell took artistic license with her pristine white dress, hair ribbon, shoes and socks (Ruby Bridges was wearing a plaid dress and black shoes in the press photograph). This all-white outfit against her dark skin immediately leaps out of the painting to catch the viewer's eye.

The white-on-black area lies in stark contrast to the rest of the composition. The sidewalk is gray, the wall is mottled old concrete, and the Marshals' suits are boringly neutral. In fact, the only other areas of engaging color are the lobbed tomato and the red explosion it has left on the wall and the Marshals' yellow armbands.

Rockwell also deliberately leaves out the Marshals' heads. They are more powerful symbols because of their anonymity; they are faceless forces of justice ensuring that a court order (partially visible in the left-most marshal's pocket) is enforced -- despite the rage of the unseen, screaming mob. The four figures form a sheltering bulwark around the little girl, and the only sign of their tension lies in their clenched right hands.

As the eye travels in a counter-clockwise ellipse around the scene, it is easy to overlook two barely-noticeable elements that are the crux of "the problem we all live with." Scrawled on the wall are the racial slur, "N----R," and the menacing acronym, "KKK."

Where to See It

The initial public reaction to The Problem We All Live With was stunned disbelief. This was not the Norman Rockwell everyone had grown to expect; the wry humor, the idealized American life, the heartwarming touches, the areas of vibrant color—all of these were conspicuous in their absence. The Problem We All Live With was a stark, muted, uncomplicated composition, and the topic! The topic was as humorless and uncomfortable as it gets.

Some previous Rockwell fans were disgusted and thought the painter had taken leave of his senses. Others denounced his "liberal" ways using derogatory language. Many readers squirmed; as previously mentioned, this was not the Norman Rockwell they had come to expect. However, the majority of LOOK subscribers—after they had gotten over their initial shock—began to give integration more serious thought than they had before. If the issue bothered Norman Rockwell so much that he was willing to take a risk, surely it deserved their closer scrutiny.

Now, nearly 50 years later, it is easier to gauge the importance of The Problem We All Live With when it first appeared in 1964. Every school in the United States is integrated, at least by law if not in fact. Although headway has been made, we have yet to become a colorblind society. There are still racists among us, much as we may wish they weren't. Fifty years, half a century, and still the fight for equality continues. In light of this, Norman Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With stands out as a more courageous and prescient statement than we originally supposed.

When not out on loan or touring, the painting can be viewed at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.