The little girl in the painting titled “The Problem We All Live With” is walking to school in a white dress, white socks and white shoes. Her hair is parted in neat plaits and she is carrying a book and a ruler. The girl appears confident and proud, even as she is overshadowed by U.S. marshals in muted gray suits. She does not seem to notice the tomato splashed on the painted wall behind her or the racial epithet scrawled above her.
The Norman Rockwell painting, depicting the walk by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, captures an ugly chapter in U.S. history, a transition between a past of segregation and a new era that would come.
This summer, the iconic artwork has found a temporary home — in the West Wing of the White House, just outside the Oval Office. The road to the White House began in 2008, with a suggestion from Bridges herself. After a lobbying campaign by members of Congress and others, the painting arrived in June.
The White House declined to speak about the painting, but offers this thought in its blog: “The President likes pictures that tell a story and this painting fits that bill. Norman Rockwell was a longtime supporter of the goals of equality and tolerance. In his early career, editorial policies governed the placement of minorities in his illustrations (restricting them to service industry positions only). However, in 1963 Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on with this, one of his most powerful paintings.”
On July 15, Bridges visited the White House to see how the historic painting looked, freshly hung. A video released by the White House shows President Obama and Bridges standing in front of the painting.
“I think it is fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we might not be looking at this together,” Obama tells Bridges.
The painting’s journey to the White House began around the time of Obama’s inauguration. Bridges had been invited to the event by her close friend, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
“I spent some time before President Obama was sworn in thinking about the handful of individuals who should be there on the historic occasion of having the first African American president,” Landrieu said in an interview. “I knew her story my whole life. It dawned on me that she should be invited.”
During their conversations, Bridges mentioned the painting and her desire to have it hang in the White House, Landrieu said. “I remember her telling me, ‘I have the portrait. Do you think we can hang it in the White House?’ ”
On the day of the inauguration, Bridges brought a print with her. “We were so excited, but in the midst of all the added security,” Landrieu said, “we couldn’t get it through the door of the White House.”
After Bridges’s initial conversations with Landrieu, other politicians, faith groups and board members from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., began lobbying the White House, suggesting the painting be displayed there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bridges’s walk to integrate the New Orleans school.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was among them. When Lewis visited Louisiana on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last year, he met Bridges. They toured her old elementary school.
“I spent the whole day with her,” Lewis said. “She thought it would be fitting for the White House to . . . display the painting in one of the rooms or offices. I did mention it to some people on my staff and others at the White House.”
The painting, which appeared on the cover of Look magazine on Jan. 14, 1964, is on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum to the White House until Oct. 31, when it returns to the museum’s traveling exhibition.
Lewis said hanging the painting at the White House says something profound. “I think there is a connection there,” he said. “Considering you know what I’m going through and what I am facing is really small compared with what this child had to face. When you look at the scenes from New Orleans . . . there is this mob and she is holding onto books with her head high. She never lost faith. She was cool. In spite of all this, the president is steady. If he is having an executive session with himself, he can say, ‘If these kids can maintain dignity and look straight ahead, I can do it.’ ”
Art historian Richard J. Powell of Duke University said the painting is another example of the Obama administration’s penchant for borrowing artworks that are both provocative and significant in American and African American history. Some of the paintings, such as Rockwell’s of Ruby Bridges, are iconic, while others have been less famous.
“I think it is major that the president of the United States is bringing art into the White House that are truly conversational pieces,” said Powell, author of “Black Art: A Cultural History.”
The White House borrowed “Black Like Me,” a work by Glenn Ligon that was inspired by the book about a white man who darkened his skin in order to journey to a segregated South as a black man. The words “All traces of the [John Howard] Griffin I had been were wiped from existence” are stenciled at the top of the piece. The line repeats itself until the words fade into blackness. The White House also borrowed “Booker T. Washington Legend,” a vibrant oil painting by William H. Johnson, depicting a former slave teaching a group of black students.
“Sky Light,” a work by African American artist Alma W. Thomas, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, hangs in the Obamas’ private quarters. Two years ago, the White House reconsidered displaying Thomas’s “Watusi (Hard Edge),” which had been borrowed from the Hirshhorn. Some critics had accused Thomas of mimicking “The Snail,” a work by Henri Matisse, but the White House denied it was removing the piece for that reason. A spokeswoman said the artwork did not fit the space.
“It is pretty clear this White House has decided they want artwork up that is not only beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but will elicit conversation, reflection and meditation,” Powell said. “This is clearly a work that does that. I think it is wonderful he brought Ruby Bridges to the White House. It shows he knows and understands this piece has specific historical context.”
After the brief visit, Bridges said that she was honored to be “standing shoulder to shoulder with history.”
“I truly believe we are members of an exclusive club in history,” Bridges said in an interview. “There are things I would like to discuss with him, to share thoughts and feelings. Being the first sometimes can be very lonely. I know it was for me. I am pretty sure it is for him at times. To stand day after day, even [the Rev. Martin Luther] King, I’m sure, had to feel that way. I’m sure there are days he didn’t feel like getting up and going out and marching, but he did. I would love to have that one-on-one conversation.”
Bridges said the girl in the painting knew nothing about racism.
“I was going to school that day. But the lesson that I took away that year in an empty school building was that none of us knows anything about disliking one another when we come into the world. It is something that is passed on to us,” Bridges said. “We should never look at another person and judge them by the color of their skin. That is the lesson I learned in first grade.”