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Artists Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence Photo

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


"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


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.


Jacob Lawrence Photo


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.

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Jacob Lawrence Biography Continues

Important Art by Jacob Lawrence

The below artworks are the most important by Jacob Lawrence - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

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

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

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Casein tempera on hardboard - Hampton University Museum, Virginia

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 22 (1940-41)
Artwork Images

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 22 (1940-41)

Artwork description & Analysis: The full text of Panel 22 from The Migration of the Negro series reads: "Another of the social causes of the migrants' leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation."

Lawrence's most famous narrative series, his 60-panel The Migration of the Negro, perfected his signature combination of historical storytelling and abstracted style. In Panel 22, Lawrence used an interplay between linear design and unmodulated color planes to suggest the indignities of Black imprisonment in the pre-Migration-era American South. The incarcerated men are depicted as large, imposing figures, with their heads hanging down, and their broad backs and shoulders extending almost the width of the panel. Despite their size, their immobility suggests their disempowerment in the face of a racist law enforcement and judicial system. Trapped behind bars, with golden handcuffs linking them one to the next, they appear like chattel. The men's slumped shoulders and the dramatic color contrast between the darkness of the men's clothes and grim prison interior, and the bright blue sky beyond the prison confines suggest the men's longing for the freedom they cannot access. Yet, in Panel 22, Lawrence implies that even if the men reached the northern United States and the world of blue sky beyond the prison, ultimately, the men couldn't outrun the root cause of their imprisonment. The echo between the pinstripes on the far-right man's pants and the vertical bars over the jail cell window suggest that as long as racism dictates penal strategy, the men will remain targets for persecution.

Tempera on gesso on composition board - Museum of Modern Art, NY

This is Harlem (1943)
Artwork Images

This is Harlem (1943)

Artwork description & Analysis: With This is Harlem, Lawrence transformed a busy Harlem neighborhood into a series of geometric abstract planes connected to each other by a limited, consistent color palette of brown, blue, yellow, red, black, white, and burnt-red-orange tones. On the roof of the buildings, rectangles and triangles in red, yellow, brown, and black create a back-and-forth interplay between abstraction and figuration. They appear to be chimneys and various structures and at the same time suggest geometric, abstract paintings. Similarly, the human figures populating the Harlem landscape, created with minimal detail and in the same unmodulated color tones Lawrence used for the landscape, appear to dissolve into abstract color planes as much as they represent unique actors, going about the business of daily life.

This is Harlem demonstrates Lawrence's commitment to depicting the intricacies of Black life in Harlem, in particular the social and religious importance of the church and church community. As a predominantly white-toned building, composed with triangular and horizontal rectangular shapes, the church stands out from the painting's other buildings, indicating the centrality of it to African-American life. Similarly, Lawrence used repeated geometric shapes, colors, and references to Christian iconography to suggest the pervasiveness of religion in Harlem, extending from the church and into the secular world of everyday life. For instance, the yellow, blue, and red abstract geometric shapes composing the church's stained glass windows parallel the yellow, blue, and red abstract shapes which create the surrounding apartment units, and the iconography of the cross can be found not only on the church itself, but also in the shapes of the telephone poles and fire escapes.

Gouache on paper - Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution

More Jacob Lawrence Artwork and Analysis:

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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.
View Influences Chart


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

Personal Contacts

Alain Locke
Lincoln Kirstein
Jay Leyda
Claude McKay


Harlem RenaissanceHarlem Renaissance
Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism
Social RealismSocial Realism

Influences on Artist
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Years Worked: 1935 - 2000
Influenced by Artist


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

Personal Contacts

Barbara Earl Thomas
Mary Randlett


Useful Resources on Jacob Lawrence





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.


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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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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