Columbus, Ohio, The Columbus Gallery of Fine Art; Allentown, Pennsylvania, The Allentown Art Museum, Salute to Norman Rockwell, October 1976-January 1977, no. 28
New York, Judy Goffman Fine Art; Greenville, South Carolina, Greenville County Museum of Art, Norman Rockwell: An American Tradition, December 1985-January 1986, no. 55
Jackson, Mississippi, Mississippi Museum of Art; Orlando, Florida, Orlando Museum of Art; Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Woods Art Gallery, University of Southern Mississippi; Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hunter Museum of Art; Vero Beach, Florida, Center for the Arts; Peoria, Illinois, Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences; New York, New York, Judy Goffman Fine Art, Norman Rockwell: The Great American Storyteller, March 1988-July 1989, no. 53
Naples, Florida, Naples Museum of Art; Newport, Rhode Island, The National Museum of American Illustration, Norman Rockwell: An American Imagist, January 2008-September 2009
Roslyn Harbor, New York, Nassau County Museum of Art, Norman Rockwell, September 2009-January 2010
The finished composition of Norman Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With is one of the most widely reproduced and cited paintings of social consciousness in American art. It has become an iconic representation of a watershed moment in twentieth century American history, its impact as much a result of the event itself as of Rockwell's uniquely simple, direct style. The picture hangs in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and is reputed to be one of the museum's most requested paintings by visitors.
In 1963 Norman Rockwell ended his 47 year association with the Saturday Evening Post and shifted his artistic focus away from nostalgic vignettes of American life during the first half of the 20υth century to more socially-conscious, politicized views of the changing scene in America during the 1960's. The Problem We All Live With was Rockwell's first work commissioned and published by Look Magazine. Look was a progressive, liberal large-format bi-weekly that covered current events and social movements, and in which Rockwell's work could appear alongside notable contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Sargent Shriver. As a regular contributor to the magazine, Rockwell was given the opportunity to explore challenging subject matter that would have been off-limits at the more politically conservative Post. Desegregation and racial injustice were issues that Look confronted, and which had also become important to Rockwell. His son Tom recalls, "I can remember Pop being seriously interested in only two political issues, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty...and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. He had always felt strongly about tolerance, though it shows only indirectly in his Post covers and most of his other work, since the cover of the Post and most advertising had to be politically neutral—or rather, neutered. ...During the years of the Civil Rights Movement, however, he was able to do paintings for Look magazine that dealt directly with the issues" (My Adventures as an Illustrator, 1994, p. 416). In his sixty-year retrospective of Rockwell's work, Thomas Buechner described this shift, "Norman Rockwell's world was changing. The old swimming hole had become polluted, carefree youth came in two colors, and typical, average, ideal Americans were going to fly to the moon. ...Instead of painting cheerleaders he painted integration; instead of peace and prosperity, he painted poverty, protest and the Peace Corps" (Norman Rockwell: A Sixty-Year Retrospective, 1972, p. 114).
Unlike the majority of Rockwell's Post covers and advertisements The Problem We All Live With is a visual commentary on an actual historical event, the desegregation of public schools following the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education and in particular, on Ruby Bridges' experience as the only black student at an all-white school. The finished work, originally published both on the magazine cover and as a centerfold in 1964 with no accompanying text, was based upon at least four studies in different mediums, in which Rockwell experimented with various compositional elements like the placement of the central female figure and the background details. In the present study, and the final published work, Ruby Bridges walks to school surrounded by four deputy United States marshals. The marshals' heads are cut out of the frame making them anonymous officers of the law. Their box-like composition protects Ruby from the crowd while at the same time transporting her forward. The groups' determination and strength is visible in their arm and leg position as well as the arrangement of their feet implying a steady, monotonous movement—an orderly march through a violent and disorderly crowd. Ruby's white dress and colorful notebook draw the viewer's attention while she stares straight forward, purposely not returning the viewer's, or the crowd's, gaze.
Rockwell's commissions for Look left most of the content and subject matter up to the artist. Having been given almost complete autonomy for his first subject, Rockwell chose desegregation as vivified in the story of a young African American girl he had never met, and whose name he did not even know. Though images and TV footage of Ruby Bridges entering and leaving the William Frantz public school in New Orleans in the fall of 1960 were certainly available at the time, Rockwell's impetus to paint The Problem We All Live With came from a passage in John Steinbeck's book Travels with Charlie. Steinbeck recalled seeing the incident first-hand, "The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white. The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big" (Travels with Charlie, 1997, p. 194).
Ruby Bridges was the only black student at Frantz, making her story particularly poignant; "Her ordeal was literally singular: unlike others in New Orleans and elsewhere, she was all alone as she encountered those daily mobs, and the people on the street hurling epithets knew it, because they persisted far longer than those who shouted at the three girls who began attending the McDonogh school" (Pictures for the American People, p. 107). In fact, as a result of a white boycott of her school, Ruby was the only student, black or white, in her class at William Frantz public school for the remainder of the school year. Ruby was also a fitting subject for Rockwell's first magazine assignment relating to American racial tensions because she was a girl. Throughout his career as an illustrator Rockwell more often used girls than boys for subjects of historical or emotional import, Richard Halpern writes, "History manages to insinuate itself in Rockwell's work, often on the shoulders of girls. Boys are immature, but girls are premature. They find themselves thrust too soon into womanhood or adulthood. Girls are untimely, and thus uniquely gifted to embody the untimeliness of history—its refusal to turn out as we'd like, when we'd like" (The Underside of Innocence, 2006, p. 129).
Rockwell's message in The Problem We All Live With is twofold. The painting was not only a message of social protest to the American people but also an indication of the direction his own art was taking, "On her slender shoulders, Ruby Bridges was forced to uphold not only the burden of history but also the burden of Rockwell's history. It was her mission, in other words, not merely to carry the civil rights movement and the project of school desegregation forward, but also to grant a future to Rockwell's realist style of painting. In this sense, Rockwell is one of the federal marshals marching her—pushing her—forward. Perhaps this is another, final reason why the faces of the marshals are not seen" (Underside of Innocence, 2006, p. 131).