Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Five Great American Paintings (Part IV: The Problem We All Live With)

This installment discusses the fourth of five paintings that I consider to be among American painter Norman Rockwell's greatest artistic achievements.

The Problem We All Live With (1964)





Norman Rockwell is most clearly identified with 20th century American sentimentality; that is, with the creation and alleged over-romanticizing of the American mythos. This identification is intended as an indictment, for while better-respected artists were busy depicting the universe as expressed through the sundry nuances of multi-color ink-blots, Rockwell dedicated his brush to representing real Americans (along with their quintessential spirit). One such American was six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges on November 14, 1960, the first day black children in New Orleans would go to school with white children. Yet far from sentimental, Rockwell juxtaposes the beauty and innocence of this young child against the savage racism that animated large swaths of the American public at that time.

Rockwell's painting depicts a young black girl, with the viewer looking at the girl at her eye level as if they were a child themselves. The girl wears a pristine white dress with white socks and sneakers; this is an outfit one often sees children wearing to Sunday religious services and indicates her finest attire. In her left hand the girl holds a ruler, pencils and two books; she carries the tools of a young student. She is surrounded by four white men in business suits; their anonymous faces are not shown to the viewer. The men wear badges of office on their coats and yellow armbands that indicate that they are federal marshals and they march together in lockstep and with fists firmly clenched; the men expect and are ready for a physical fight.

The reason for the men's aggressive posture is made clear when one looks upon the wall presented in the background. Scrawled out in paint is an ugly racial epithet intended to communicate the writer's view of the alleged sub-human status of the members of the child's race. A splattered tomato sits on the pavement, its fresh ejecta dribbles down the wall, the trace of its rays indicating that these ejecta were mere inches away from sullying the girl's immaculate dress. Drawing the viewer into the drama of the scene, the tomato lies on the ground in a way that makes it seem that it was thrown over the viewer's own shoulder; Rockwell does not permit the viewer to escape as a mere passive observer, but makes him an active participant in the scene depicted in his painting.

Yet in perhaps the most striking aspect of Rockwell's canvas, the girl does not seem to notice the rage that surrounds her; instead, she innocently pantomimes the marshals, her small hands clenched as theirs are and her tiny feet in step with their own. Furthermore, while the men guard the girl, they make no emotional contact with her; they do not hold her hand or offer any gesture of warmth or compassion. They protect her from physical assault, but on every other level, the girl stands alone and is as exposed as her white dress against the angry invective of the mob. Yet though it all, she remains pure; her youthful innocence remains intact.

I have yet to encounter any parallel to this work in American art. Rockwell assembles a host of contrasts, from the innocence of the young girl, to the tomato-splattered wall, to the grim determination of the marshals to defend the girl, to their seeming emotional indifference to her plight and he presents them for us to reconcile. Yet there is no easy reconciliation; such is the nature of the problem we all live with. What Rockwell makes clear to his viewers are the stakes of this conflict; one must truly be depraved not to feel empathy for the girl and contempt for those who would act with such irrationality and malice against her. The cornerstone of the creed that animated this child's enemies was that by nature, blacks were separate and beneath whites, yet Rockwell shows us a young girl thrust into a maelstrom with her humanity plainly in view and for all to see. The world seethes angrily around her yet she remains a guiltless girl, a young scholar on the first day of classes.

As I alluded to earlier, Ruby Nell Bridges, the first black child to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South, is a real person. Now a mother and speaker on the history of the era that she as a six-year-old child helped to pioneer, she is able to share her story and its implications in her own voice. Nevertheless, the voice that Norman Rockwell was able to give her and others like her though his painting continues to inform us to this day. At root, it is a message of humanity in the face of adversity and contempt, and it is a message that deserves to be told.

Part I: The Scoutmaster
Part II: The Homecoming Marine
Part III: Lincoln the Railsplitter
Part IV: The Problem We All Live With

Part V: Freedom of Speech

2 comments:

Kyle Haight said...

A powerful painting and analysis. Definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when Norman Rockwell is mentioned.

philcoates said...

Once again, your analysis is letter perfect. It's almost impossible to find anything to add (and I'm someone never at a loss for words). You nailed everything about the skill, power, underlying choices of the artist.

I had seen the painting before and liked it, but your points moved me, focused me, made me appreciate it on a deeper level.

If you think about what the painting would look like had it been slightly altered, you can see that Rockwell makes unerringly good choices. The pure white dress is much better than if it had been a more 'realistic' one.

The choice of Rockwell to omit the faces of the deputy U.S. marshals is unusual, but a good one. He is a painter who thinks in essentials. It suggests impersonal forces swirling around her. It puts the focus squarely on the little girl as, in a way, the only human involved.

--Philip Coates