Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With

The Problem We All Live With is one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous and admired paintings. This painting showed Americans that Rockwell could also paint serious images in addition to his previous classic Americana pictures.

In this illustration from the January 14, 1964 edition of Look magazine, Rockwell captured the essence of a particular little black girl’s historic walk into school. That little girl was then six year old Ruby Bridges.

She is accompanied and guarded by four United States Marshals. These men are all white. All are wearing business suits. All are wearing yellow arm bands proclaiming their office. They also wear badges on the front of their suits.

The marshals are faceless. The images of the marshals remind me of stone pillars, solid, strong and, if necessary, unmovable.

They needed to be strong and solid, because there was an ugly mob there to greet Ruby that first day and every day of the first school year. They had their jobs to do.

And, yet, their job was not necessarily just to protect young Ruby Bridges as much as it was to fulfill the institution of the law. Rockwell shows us the court’s order for integration in the jacket pocket of the lead Marshall closest to our viewpoint.

The focus of the painting, though, is little Ruby Bridges. This is as it should be. She is dressed in a dress that is pure white, a contrast to her dark skin. This is probably one of her best dresses, maybe even her best Sunday dress.

She is carrying her two school books, her ruler and her pencils. She is staying right behind the two lead marshals.

She actually looks very brave, and indeed she was very brave, whether she realized it at the time or not.

The only indication we can see of the mob at the school is the background of the painting. The background shows the mob’s reaction to racial integration of the schools.

A racial slur (that hateful “N” word) is scrawled on the wall in the center of the painting. The initials KKK also appear in the upper left corner of the background.

A tomato has been thrown by a member of the mob. It looks as if it just barely missed little Ruby. That tomato was thrown so hard that its juice splattered in a radiant pattern and parts of its pulp are scattered on the wall. The spent tomato rests against the wall. The angle of the tomato’s trajectory implies to us that little Ruby is walking right past the angry mob.

And yet Ruby and her guardians press onward toward their goal.

Rockwell did not usually make his paintings hard to understand. He painted for his readership, and that readership was, by and far, ordinary folks.

By the same token, he always spent a great deal of time on details and getting his composition just like he wanted it to appear.

The faceless and headless United States Marshals represent the power of the US government to enforce its rules. Their faceless depiction implies the blindness of justice in a society ruled by law.

The law is being enforced without consideration to the majority of the people involved in this episode. That majority, not shown except through the inferences of the tomato and racial epithets, does not want that school integrated. Their opinion and wishes do not change the rule of law or its enforcement.

Another important symbol is the white dress Ruby is wearing. The motives of Ruby Bridges were pure. She was not aware that she would become such a historic figure. She was only a little girl going to school.

Contrast Ruby’s pure motives with the angry mob. That mob is symbolized by the tomato, bright red and shattered with its life force crushed, released and running in too many different directions to be sustained.

Showing some irony, Rockwell painted the detritus from the thrown tomato as only soiling the racial slur on the wall of the school.

In contrast to Ruby and her school supplies, the tomato and the Marshall’s badges and armbands, the whole rest of the painting is rendered in muted tones, pastels and grey tones. rockwell hardness tester for sale

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