An indelible imagemaker's protest in paint
"Racism is a grown-up disease," declares the motto on Ruby Bridges's website. Just below is a photo of Mrs. Bridges today superimposed on one of her as a 6-year-old four decades ago. She is walking up the steps of the William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, a little black girl protected by two federal marshals who tower over her.
Her name then was Ruby Nell. It was Nov. 14, 1960. She was the first black child to enroll at this all-white elementary school in compliance with the federal court order to desegregate New Orleans schools. Her story is moving - she was a very courageous child - and remains a significant testimony against intolerance of all kinds. Ruby's photo evokes another powerful image on her website: Norman Rockwell's iconic painting for Look magazine on Jan. 14, 1964, "The Problem We All Live With."
Rockwell was an illustrator of exceptional skill and charm. He produced a vast number of unforgettable images over a long career, many of them involving children. His American kids are innocent and appealing, but often, at the same time, decidedly cheeky or mischievous. His method was to pose and photograph his models, and the resulting paintings were meticulous and photographic. But it is revealing to see how the artist subtly changed facial expressions from photo to canvas in order to make his paintings communicate with the viewer. Communication, even persuasion, lay at the back of his work; this was art for effect.
"The Problem We All Live With," with its clever use of scale, belongs to Rockwell's later work, when he began openly showing his strong liberal convictions. (It is currently on view as part of an exhibition called "Hometown Hero, Citizen of the World: Rockwell in Stockbridge" at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. until Oct. 31.)
This is a highly persuasive image. Before he arrived at the final version, one sketch shows the little girl closer to the two marshals following her than to those in front. In the finished picture, the girl seems more determined, independent, and untouched. The aggressive tomato splat on the wall is behind her now, and she is completely unaffected.