Norman Rockwell is known for painting sentimental and idyllic scenes of American life, demonstrated most prolifically through his popular illustrated covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for more than 45 years. An exhibition of his work is currently on display at the Tacoma Art Museum through May 26. Rockwell’s illustrations draw people in and “cross generational cultures,” said Margaret Bullock, the curator of collections and special exhibits at the TAM.
“He’s just really approachable — the people can recognize and understand his work,” she said. “It’s really accessible. They recognize the figures, they recognize the themes of the stories he’s telling.”
Rockwell illustrated for the Post from the 1920s through the 1960s. In those decades, America evolved dramatically and Rockwell was its illustrative commentator. His body of work highlighted the issues of that era.
When the United States entered World War II, Rockwell was commissioned to produce what would later be one of his most famous works, “The Four Freedoms” series, featuring four separate paintings on the theme of America’s Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship and Freedom From Want and Fear.
After the war, the United States launched itself as a powerful member of the global community, but at home, the country was far from social progress.
In 1960, a six year-old African American girl entered a New Orleans elementary school; a historic participant in the nation-wide push to integrate all-White schools. The young girl’s ordinary walk to school would later become an iconic image of the social movement of the day. Six year-old Ruby Bridges, was flanked by U.S. marshalls on her first day of school after being chosen as a kindergartener to integrate that fall.
Three years later, Rockwell painted “The Problem We All Live With”, an illustration depicting Ruby’s historic march to school. The painting is profound and blunt in its message. Against a backdrop of racist graffiti and remnants of a thrown tomato, Ruby is dressed in a stark-white dress; a symbol of truth and innocence in the face of hostility. The painting is framed by U.S. marshalls, whose faces are unseen – focusing the viewers attention on Ruby’s quiet strength and youthful dignity.
Along with Ruby, school officials selected six other students to integrate. Two of those students chose to stay at their schools while Ruby was the only student selected to transfer to the all-White William Frantz Public School in New Orleans.
In 1999, the icon, a mother of four who still lives in New Orleans, founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation, where she promotes tolerance and respect of differences. On her foundation website, (www.rubybridges.com) Ruby Bridges recalls her first day of school.
“We spent that whole day sitting in the principal’s office,” Bridges describes. “Through the window, I saw white parents pointing at us and yelling. Then rushing their children out of the school. In the uproar I never got to my classroom.”
Fifty years since that day in the principal’s office, Rockwell’s depiction in “The Problem We All Live With,” can be shared with others. A large collection of original work by Norman Rockwell, including the “Problem” is now on display at the TAM. The popular exhibit is part of a traveling collection shared by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
“‘The Problem We All Live With’, has become one of Rockwell’s most important paintings,” said Corry Kanzenberg, a curator of archival collections at the Norman Rockwell Museum. She later added, “It is one of the first of many illustrations motivated on real world concerns.”
Ruby Bridges is also scheduled to speak at Phillip Hall in the University of Washington-Tacoma campus (across the street from the museum) on Saturday, May 21 at 2 p.m. (For more information visit www.tacomaartmuseum.org under the ‘Events’ section.) She’ll share what it was like for her on that tumultuous day.
Bullock explains how the museum encourages conversation about art and culture. She says, “This is a really nice way to do both. To talk about the artwork and to talk about what was happening in that particular period of time.”