For decades, millions of Americans had looked forward to taking in the mail and finding a Rockwell cover. But starting in the ’60s, when the Post arrived, subscribers were more likely to find a color photograph of Elizabeth Taylor in emphatic eyeliner, decked out for her role in the film Cleopatra. The emphasis on the common man central to America’s sense of self in 20th-century America gave way, in the television-centered 1960s, to the worship of celebrities, whose life stories and marital crises replaced those of the proverbial next-door neighbor as subjects of interest and gossip.
Rockwell was aghast when his editors asked him to give up his genre scenes and start painting portraits of world leaders and celebrities. In September 1963, when the Post’s new art editor, Asger Jerrild, contacted Rockwell about illustrating an article, the artist wrote back: “I have come to the conviction that the work I now want to do no longer fits into the Post scheme.” It was, in effect, Rockwell’s letter of resignation.
On December 14, 1963, the Saturday Evening Post put out a memorial issue to honor a slain president. While other magazines ran grisly photographs of the assassination, the Post went with an illustration—it reprinted the Rockwell portrait of JFK that had run in 1960, before he was elected president. There he was again, with his blue eyes and thick hair and boyish Kennedy grin that seemed to promise that all would be well in America.
At the age of 69, Rockwell began working for Look magazine and entered a remarkable phase of his career, one devoted to championing the civil rights movement. Although he had been a moderate Republican in the ’30s and ’40s, he shifted to the left as he grew older; he was especially sympathetic to the nuclear disarmament movement that flourished in the late ’50s. Leaving the conservative Post was liberating for him. He began to treat his art as a vehicle for progressive politics. President Johnson had taken up the cause of civil rights. Rockwell, too, would help drive the Kennedy agenda forward. You might say he became its premier if unofficial illustrator.
Rockwell’s first illustration for Look magazine, The Problem We All Live With, was a two-page spread that appeared in January 1964. An African-American girl—a 6-year-old in a white dress, a matching bow in her hair—is walking to school, escorted by four badge-wearing officers in lock step. Ruby Bridges, as most everyone now knows, was the first African-American to attend the all-white William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, as a result of court-ordered desegregation. And Rockwell’s painting chronicled that famous day. On the morning of November 14, 1960, federal marshals dispatched by the U.S. Justice Department drove Ruby and her mother to her new school, only five blocks from their house. She had to walk by a crowd of crazy hecklers outside the school, most of them housewives and teenagers. She did this every day for weeks, and then the weeks became months.
It is interesting to compare Rockwell’s painting with the wire-service photographs on which it was loosely based. Even when he was depicting an event out of the headlines, Rockwell was not transcribing a scene but inventing one. To capture the problem of racism, he created a defaced stucco wall. It’s inscribed with a slur (“nigger”) and the initials KKK, the creepiest monogram in American history.
Many subscribers to the magazine, especially those who lived in the South, wrote furious letters to Look. But over time The Problem We All Live With would come to be recognized as a defining image of the civil rights movement in this country. Its influence was profound. Ruby would reappear in many guises in American culture, even in musical comedy. “That painting he did about the little black girl walking—that’s in Hairspray,” recalled John Waters, the director and writer of the film. “That inspired L’il Inez in Hairspray.” L’il Inez is the charismatic African-American girl in Baltimore who helps break down racial barriers by being the best dancer in town.
One afternoon in July 1968, Rockwell answered the phone in his studio and heard the voice at the other end talking intently about mounting a show of his work. He was taken by surprise and assumed the caller had confused him with the painter Rockwell Kent. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I think you have the wrong artist.” The next morning, Bernie Danenberg, a young art dealer who was just opening a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, drove up to Stockbridge. He convinced Rockwell to agree to an exhibition at his gallery—the first major show of Rockwell’s work in New York.