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Artists Jacob Lawrence
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Jacob Lawrence

American Painter

Movements and Styles: Social Realism, Harlem Renaissance

Born: September 7, 1917 - Atlantic City, New Jersey

Died: June 9, 2000 - Seattle, Washington

Jacob Lawrence Timeline

Quotes

"My pictures express my life and experiences. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint about the American Negro working class."
Jacob Lawrence
"If at times my artworks do not express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man's continuous struggle to life his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being."
Jacob Lawrence
"I have always liked a certain kind of structure that happens to be geometric. It's clean. To me, it has a cleanness about it, a neatness. Maybe that's it. A certain neatness. I keep my studio, try to keep my studio and home the same way...And in teaching I emphasize this aspect."
Jacob Lawrence
"My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content."
Jacob Lawrence
"I am part of the Black community, so I am the Black community speaking."
Jacob Lawrence
"I like to think I've expanded my interest to include not just the Negro theme but man generally and maybe this speaks through the Negro I think this is valid also...I would like to think of it as dealing with all people, the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward..."
Jacob Lawrence
"I never use the term 'protest' in connection with my paintings. They just deal with the social scene...They're how I feel about things."
Jacob Lawrence
"I've always been invovled with content...and form, I think form is just as important [as content]."
Jacob Lawrence

"The community [in Harlem] let me develop...I painted the only way I knew how to paint...I tried to put the images down the way I related to the community...I was being taught...to see."

Jacob Lawrence Signature

Synopsis

Achieving success early in his career, Jacob Lawrence combined Social Realism, modern abstraction, pared down composition, and bold color to create compelling stories of African American experiences and the history of the United States. Drawing on his own life and what he witnessed in his Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Lawrence strove to communicate human struggles and aspirations that resonated with diverse viewers. Coming to artistic maturity during the waning of the Harlem Renaissance and the waxing of Abstract Expressionism, Lawrence charted a unique path, telling poignant stories of migration, war, and mental illness, among others, and would become a powerful influence for younger African American and African artists. While often drawing on the specific experiences of African Americans, Lawrence's long-running and prolific career produced an oeuvre that speaks dramatically, graphically, and movingly to viewers of all colors and persuasions.

Key Ideas

Early in his career, Lawrence's artistic process relied on a vast amount of historical research. Spending hours at the public library pouring over historical texts, memoirs, and newspapers and attending history clubs that were then popular in Harlem, Lawrence translated these histories into images and linked them to contemporary political struggles both in the North and the Jim Crow segregated South, reinvigorating traditional history painting.
Lawrence often worked in series, creating numerous individual panels, to tell a story. Influenced by avant-garde cinema, Lawrence's series often have a montage-effect, but he used structural strategies, such as a unified color palette and recurring motifs, to connect the individual paintings into a coherent whole.
Lawrence borrowed strategies from print media to make his stories based in experiential reality as compelling as possible . He paired long, descriptive captions with his paintings as was common in photo magazines and books in the 1930s and 1940s. Additionally, Lawrence used flat, unmodulated colors in large planes that had the quality of print graphics.
Lawrence's use of abstraction in depicting the characters of his stories allow those stories, even if historically specific, to have more universal appeal, as the viewer can imagine him or herself in similar positions. Lawrence's ability to imbue the particular drama of everyday life with the gravitas of collective, or universal, humanity is one of his greatest artistic feats.

Most Important Art

Jacob Lawrence Famous Art

The Frederick Douglass series, Panel 28 (1938-39)

The full text of Panel 28 from The Frederick Douglass Series reads: "A cowardly and bloody riot took place in New York in July 1863 - a mob fighting the draft, a mob willing to fight to free the Union, a mob unwilling to fight to free slaves, a mob that attacked every colored person within reach disregarding sex or age. They hanged Negroes, burned their homes, dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp posts. The colored populace took refuge in cellars and garrets. This mob was part of the rebel force, without the rebel uniform but with all its deadly hate. It was the fire of the enemy opened in the rear of the loyal army."

Panel 28 uses simplified forms, a limited color palette, and a clear narrative progression from left to right in tandem with evocative, descriptive text. A group of freed slaves huddle in a shelter, watching the carnage of a Civil War anti-draft riot with expressions of horror and sorrow. Lawrence divided the panel into three dramatic groups. The first group depicts two adults and a child, wide-eyed with fear as they witness the brutality of the riot. The second, middle group shows an older woman, symbolizing an older generation with memories of slavery and the commonality of violence, sheltering a young child who, perhaps unused to such scenes, is seemingly distracted, and grasps the woman's thumb. The third grouping, a mother, father, and infant, symbolizes the hope and fear of a generation born at the cusp of great change and the promise of freedom throughout the United States tantalizingly at hand. Lawrence later recalled the work's important political gestures as "some of the most successful statements I have made in my life ."

Working with a palette of browns, bright red, yellow-orange, black, white, and blue, Lawrence created his figures as non-naturalistic color blocks, their limbs elongated, their torsos concealed beneath blocky clothing, and their facial features simplified to eyes and mere outlines of a nose and mouth. These compositional decisions eliminate extraneous background details that would take away from the poignant emotions of the narrative. Art historian Elizabeth Hutton Turner has said of Lawrence's works in series that they were conceived as "image and word" together, with the works' "poetry" emerging from the "repetition of certain shapes" linking one panel to the next. In Frederick Douglass, the woven basket, made by slaves, acts as a reminder of slave labor, the work of the Black American journey to freedom, and the continual presence of an oppressive past even in a seemingly safer present. The red flower symbolizes hope, and its appearance in Frederick Douglass panels suggests the promise of a better life, even in the most dire of circumstances.
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Jacob Lawrence Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Jacob and Rosa Lee Lawrence, who separated in 1924. Lawrence's parents originally hailed from South Carolina and Virginia, and his family made their way northward to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and eventually Harlem, New York. The Lawrence family's relocation was emblematic of the World War I-era "Great Migration" of African-Americans out of the oppressive conditions of the Southern United States to the relative safety and economic opportunity promised in the Northern states.

The oldest of three siblings, Lawrence and his brother and sister were placed in foster care in Philadelphia from 1927 to 1930 while his mother worked in New York City. By 1930, at the age of thirteen, Lawrence and his siblings were reunited with their mother, who relocated the family to the Harlem. It was in Harlem that Lawrence first began to experiment with art, creating non-figurative designs and objects in an arts and crafts workshop operated by the local settlement house. Lawrence turned to art less out of a sense of creative "calling" and more as a way to keep himself occupied in the tenement neighborhood of his younger days. Though Lawrence's mother had hoped that Lawrence would become a postman, Lawrence dropped out of high school at age 17 to pursue an artistic career. He was unable to join Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA), an integral source of income to artists during the Great Depression, until the age of 21, and so supported himself and his family through turns as a printer, newspaper deliverer, and construction laborer until 1938, when he secured a position in the WPA and Federal Art Project (FAP)'s easel division.

Early Training and Work

Lawrence was, in art historian Leslie King-Hammond's words, the "first major artist of the twentieth-century who was technically trained and artistically educated within the art community in Harlem," and she described Lawrence as Harlem's "biographer." Harlem, the cultural locus of Black American life following the Harlem Renaissance, was itself an integral subject for Lawrence's work. Though Lawrence arrived in Harlem at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence's early education represented the waning influence of its ideologies, as Lawrence's most significant teachers were Harlem Renaissance luminaries. Charles Henry Alston, Lawrence's first mentor and his teacher at the WPA's Harlem Art Workshop, who came to view Lawrence like his own son, was an artist who came of age embracing the teachings of Alain Locke, whose 1925 The New Negro articulated the Harlem Renaissance artistic philosophy whereby African-American artists should seek inspiration from an African, ancestral past. Lawrence also trained with and was significantly influenced by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage, who instructed Lawrence both at her Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and at the Harlem Art Workshop. Lawrence's interest in depicting scenes from black American history and from the Harlem world around him, as well as the Egyptian-like angularity of his figures and his later visual references to African art, ultimately reflect the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.

In his early years, Lawrence was so keen to learn about the history of art, that he would walk from his home in Harlem to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1935, Lawrence met Charles Seifert, lecturer and historian, who allowed Lawrence access to his personal library of African and African-American literature and encouraged Lawrence to seek out the textual resources on African history in the Arthur Schomburg collection at the 135th street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Sources Lawrence studied in the Schomburg collection became the basis for his most well-known and best-regarded works: his historical works in series. In each series, such as his Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and The Migration of the Negro, Lawrence coupled panel paintings with descriptive captions which collectively narrated either the biography of a notable historical figure or a significant historical event. Lawrence maintained that neither money nor a prominent museum acquisition drove his historical panels, but rather a desire to tell, display, and celebrate the depicted historical events.

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Jacob Lawrence Biography Continues

Cinema and Social Realist painting were powerful influences on Lawrence's works in series. Jay Leyda, Lawrence's friend and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York's first film curator, introduced Lawrence to Russian and German interwar cinema, and these cinematic models informed Lawrence's scenic construction of each series' narrative progression as an assemblage of dramatic moments, each crafted for heightened emotional impact. Lawrence's connections to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), with its historical emphasis on Social Realist figuration, exemplified by the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, his admiration for Mexican Muralists, such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, and his two-year scholarship to the American Artists School in 1937 where he studied with Social Realist artist Harry Gottlieb all separately introduced Lawrence to the evocative potential of narrative paintings conceived for the purpose of social commentary, an essential strategy employed in his historical series. In particular, Lawrence's affection for Orozco and his socially-charged painting was cemented in a more personal way. Recounting a meeting between himself and Orozco in 1940 at the Museum of Modern Art, Lawrence recalled that Orozco at first wouldn't talk to him, but instead requested that Lawrence go out and get him some cherries. Their subsequent conversation began with discussions about the cherries, which eventually led to Orozco looking at and praising Lawrence's work.

In 1940, Lawrence received a $1,500 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to complete what would become one of his most acclaimed works, his 60-panel The Migration of the Negro series (1940-1941). The Migration of the Negro was as notable for its artistic achievements and the professional opportunities it afforded Lawrence. In addition to telling the story of the African-American "Great Migration," which his own parents had undertaken, the series enabled Lawrence to deepen his relationship with his future wife, Gwendolyn Knight. Lawrence had met Knight in Augusta Savage's art classes and while in Charles Alston's WPA workshops, and she was an artist assisting Lawrence with writing captions for The Migration series and preparing the gesso panels. Lawrence and Knight married in 1941.

At this stage, Lawrence was garnering mainstream art institutional support. He received a Guggenheim grant in 1946 to facilitate the completion of his War series, based on his experience as a war artist serving during the Second World War, and in 1944 he had a solo exhibition of his wartime works and The Migration of the Negro at MoMA - MoMA's first solo exhibition of an African-American artist.

Gwendolyn and Jacob Lawrence were among the earlier African-American teachers at Black Mountain College

Lawrence honed his compositional approach through the inspiration of Bauhaus émigré Josef Albers, who, in 1946, invited Lawrence to teach at Black Mountain College. The school was a refuge for the European avant-garde who fled the Second World War and became an integral creative incubator for the postwar generation of American Modernists like Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. To combat the policy of Southern segregation still in effect during Lawrence's tenure at Black Mountain, Albers hired a private train car to bring Lawrence and his wife to and from the college, and the artist remained on campus for the duration of his time in North Carolina.

Following Albers' example, Lawrence embraced the emotional and symbolic potential of color juxtapositions and conceptualized pictorial space as if an architectural plane of interlocking shapes and lines. Though he generally rejected defining his work as a particular style, when pressed, Lawrence identified his work as "expressionist," referring to his desire to create artistic narratives which provoked strong emotional reactions in viewers. Art historian Patricia Hills has referred to Lawrence's style as "expressive cubism" and an "expressive flat collage cubist style."

Mature Period

In interviews, Lawrence always stressed the importance of personal experience to his creative efforts, and no work is more emblematic of this guiding principle than his 1950 Hospital series. Lawrence's career success arrived early: in 1935, at the age of eighteen, Lawrence began exhibiting his work, with a group exhibition at the Alston-Bannarn Studios on West 141st Street. By 1936, Lawrence had his first solo exhibition. The most prominent African-American artist in the 1930s through the 1950s, Lawrence was unsettled by the emotional and psychological burden of assuming such a symbolic status at such a young age. This pressure partly contributed to his mental breakdown in 1949, when Lawrence checked himself into a mental health treatment facility at Hillside Hospital in Queens. When he completed his hospitalization in August 1950, Lawrence created the Hospital series based on his year in treatment. With their honest, emotionally rich depictions of psychological illness and its treatment, these works were praised at the time of their 1950 exhibition at the Downtown Gallery as even more socially significant than his earlier historical series like The Migration of the Negro.

At midcentury and following his hospitalization, Lawrence's artistic style reached a new level of maturity, straddling the divide between abstraction and figuration with a new and bold geometricizing approach. He was no longer interested in repeating his past successes but in breaking new compositional and narrative ground. Though Lawrence's mature period coincided with the establishment of black artist groups in New York in the 1960s and though he would later exert considerable influence on contemporary black artists, Lawrence remained outside of these art circles due to his already-prominent stature in the art world. When Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, and others formed the group Spiral in 1963, for instance, it was made clear to both Lawrence and Gwendolyn Lawrence that their help was not needed, as Spiral aspired to increase visibility for its own artists.

Lawrence was known as a gentle but tough artist, who, in the words of art historian Patricia Hills, "never swerved from his commitment to the struggle for a fair and just society," one which he aspired to realize through his art. The social charge of Lawrence's work is in evidence in his works of the 1960s, which responded to and critiqued police violence, racial unrest, and the backlash to school integration connected to the Civil Rights movement in America.

In 1962, Lawrence and Gwendolyn traveled to Nigeria, where his Migration series was being exhibited. While there, Lawrence lectured on African sculpture's role in the development of European and American avant-garde movements, particularly Cubism. The couple returned to Nigeria in 1964, but, upon their arrival, Lawrence and Gwendolyn were blacklisted, unable to secure housing, and under constant surveillance by the U.S. Government due to Lawrence's tangential affiliations with communist and communist-related groups back in America. Despite these circumstances, Lawrence's time in Africa was formative in his development as an artist and an educator, and Lawrence arranged for a cross-continental exchange of artistic knowledge, as Lawrence organized an exhibition of Black American artists in Senegal, and both Lawrence and Gwendolyn exhibited their works abroad.

Late Period

Lawrence's later career was marked by institutional validation, exemplified by his 1974 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective which travelled to five other cities, and by Lawrence's position as a prominent art educator. Lawrence was on faculty at Pratt Institute from 1958 to 1970, taught at the New School for Social Research from 1966 to 1969, and in 1969, the University of Washington in Seattle offered him a full professorship, which he accepted. In 1963, Lawrence served on the advisory board for the founding of the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and, in 1976, along with Romare Bearden, Willem de Kooning, and Bill Caldwell, Lawrence co-founded the Rainbow Art Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping young printmakers from minority backgrounds. Lawrence's educational mission extended until the end of his life: in 1999, he and Gwendolyn established the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation to promote and support American art.

Lawrence also took on several large-scale mural commissions in his later career. In addition to Lawrence's exposure to mural work through his admiration for the Mexican Muralists, murals had been a part of Lawrence's artistic consciousness since his early days working with Charles Alston; Alston was, at one time, director of the WPA Harlem Mural Project, and completed murals for Harlem Hospital while Lawrence was his student. In 1955, Lawrence tied with artist Stuart Davis for a competition to design a mural for the United Nations building in New York. The project, though never completed due to lack of funds, was one of Lawrence's early forays into mural design. 1979, Lawrence completed his first mural commission, Games, for Kingdome Stadium in Seattle, Washington, and executed six additional murals over the next twelve years.

Lawrence was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998. He passed away at home in June 2000 at age 82, leaving incomplete a series which focused on higher education and the university.


Legacy

Jacob Lawrence in his studio

Lawrence is notable both for his artistic achievements as he is for being one of the first African-American artists to achieve widespread, mainstream acclaim. Lawrence was the first African-American artist to be represented by a New York commercial gallery, the Downtown Gallery in New York, where he exhibited from 1941 to 1953.

His work had a dramatic impact on succeeding artistic generations. Kerry James Marshall is one of the more prominent artists whose works riff on Lawrence's oeuvre both in his stylistic interplays between abstracted silhouette and figuration, and in his pointed commentary on black life. In addition, Lawrence's time in Nigeria as an educator and as an exhibitor influenced the artists of the Mbari art movement, including Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusul Grillos.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Jacob Lawrence
Interactive chart with Jacob Lawrence's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Charles AlstonCharles Alston
Harry Gottlieb
Jose Clemente OrozcoJose Clemente Orozco
Josef AlbersJosef Albers
Käthe Kollwitz

Friends

Alain Locke
Lincoln Kirstein
Jay Leyda
Claude McKay

Movements

Harlem RenaissanceHarlem Renaissance
Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism
Social RealismSocial Realism
CubismCubism
ExpressionismExpressionism
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Years Worked: 1935 - 2000

Artists

Romare BeardenRomare Bearden
Robert Colescott
Hank Willis Thomas
Kerry James Marshall
Alexis Gideon

Friends

Barbara Earl Thomas
Mary Randlett

Movements


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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Jacob Lawrence

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

artworks

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (2015) Recomended resource

A complete catalogue of the artists' famed works in the Migration Series

The Great Migration: An American Story Recomended resource

By Jacob Lawrence
Comprehensive look at Lawrence's most famous collection of works

Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935-1999): A Catalogue Raisonne (2001)

By Peter T. Nesbett
A collection of prominent works by the artist

Jacob Lawrence: American Painter (1986)

A comprehensive survey of works by the artist

More Interesting Books about Jacob Lawrence
The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Legacy Resource Center Website Recomended resource

Very comprehensive information on Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series Recomended resource

Phillips Collection site spotlighting the famous series

One Way Ticket Recomended resource

MoMA supplemental site featuring information and images about the monumental exhibition of Lawrence's Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence: Harlem Walking Tour Recomended resource

Podcast that provides details on the Harlem neighborhood areas of importance in relation to Lawrence's work

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series Recomended resource

By Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall
The New York Times
June 24, 2015

Jacob Lawrence's 1941 Paintings Spark Talk About Racial Injustice Today Recomended resource

By Colton Valentine
July 28, 2015

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration Recomended resource

By Isabel Wilkerson
Smithsonian Magazine
September 2016

Jacob Lawrence and the making of the Migration Series Recomended resource

Interview by the Phillips Collection, highlighting the artists' context for his famous series

Artist Interviews /// Jacob Lawrence Recomended resource

Biographical interviews and context on Lawrence's life and art making practices

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and the Legacy of Jim Crow Recomended resource

A MoMA seminar on the importance of Lawrence's Migration Series in socio-political contexts

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series

Compilation of works featured in the Migration Series, including scholarly narration for each work

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