Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: September 7, 1917 - Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died: June 9, 2000 - Seattle, Washington

Biography of Jacob Lawrence


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 20th-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.

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.

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.

The Legacy of Jacob Lawrence

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.

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Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Jacob Lawrence Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 12 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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