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Jacob Lawrence

Born, 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Died, 2000

Along with Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, Jacob Lawrence is unquestionably one of the dominant figures in mid 20th century African American art practice. Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence was in effect practising as an artist for the whole of his adult life, until his death in 2000. Lawrence was universally respected and regarded for his commitment to the Black image, in a variety of its guises. He chronicled, with devastating clarity, the Great Migration of African American from the predominantly rural Southern states of the US to the burgeoning urban industrial centres of the Northern states. Keenly aware of the importance of Black history, Lawrence’s Migration Series reflected a steadfast belief on the artist’s part that knowledge of history, in its widest sense, and a reasoning of how that history impacted on oneself and one’s own community, were fundamentally important components to his art practice. To this end, Lawrence undertook other historical series with similarly grand and majestic narratives as the Migration Series. These included studies of the Haitian Revolution and the charismatic personality of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the fascinating and hugely important work of Harriet Tubman in escorting hundreds of slaves to freedom on the ‘Underground Railroad’ and other contributions, of equal magnitude, to the cause of emancipation.

Lawrence started drawing in his early teens, when his mother moved Lawrence and his two siblings to the Harlem district of New York City. With a few years Lawrence was to he attended classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by painter Charles Alston (himself, at the time, a student at New York’s Columbia University), and at the Harlem Community Art Center, taught by sculptor Augusta Savage. Learning of such developments in Lawrence’s art education, we get a sense of the contributions to community development, and the importance of mentoring, by established artists, as youngsters in their neighbourhood who showed a particular aptitude for, or interest in, art practice. A respect for these notions of community engagement and support were to stay with Lawrence throughout his working life.

Eventually, Lawrence was able to secure employment through the highly important WPA programme (Works Progress Administration), which further strengthened his conviction that art was likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being of the Black community, if the Black artist him or herself willed it to be so. In this regard, Lawrence was arguably an advocate of the principles of the American Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before, and long after, the years in which the Movement had its greatest impact.

By the mid 1940s, Lawrence had already secured the following substantial résumé, [Art News’ Who’s Who, October 1944]. “LAWRENCE, Jacob, painter. Born Atlantic City, N.J. 1917, son of rose and Jacob Lawrence. Studied Charles Alston & Henry Bannarn 1934 – 1938. Scholarship American Artists school 1937 – 1938. 1941 married Gwendolyn Knight. One man shows at Downtown Gallery 1941 and 1943, and Museum of Modern Art 1944. 1938 awarded Second Prize N.Y. Federal Art Project; 1941 – 1943 Rosenwald Fellowship; 1943 Metropolitan Museum Artists for victory $600 purchase prize. Represented in permanent collections of Albright Art Gallery, Howard University, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum, Phillips Memorial Gallery, Portland Museum, Providence Museum, Worcester Museum, Virginia Museum.” There then follows a list of private collectors. The year was, as mentioned, 1944. Lawrence was just about 27.

In 1970 Lawrence settled in Seattle, Washington state, became an art professor at the University of Washington. It was the Seattle Art Museum, some two decades later, which was to produce the hugely important book and exhibition, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter (University of Washington Press, 1990). The book (the responsibility of Ellen Harkins Wheat) remains a towering piece of research and scholarship on Lawrence, who was the subject of a great many catalogues and other publications, during the course of his lengthy artistic career.

Lawrence’s significance and relevance as an artist never waned. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he was commissioned by Time magazine to produce illustrations for its covers. The first, (August 23, 1968) a portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, the leader of the ill-fated campaign for Biafran independence. (Some sources assign the rank of General to Ojukwu) The second, (April 6, 1970) a particularly graphic and engaging rendering of the charismatic civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson.

Despite its obvious vintage and its now-archaic land slightly problematic language, the following opening paragraph of a 1944 Art News feature on Lawrence (which included his résumé quoted above), serves as a more than adequate introduction, and indeed summary, of this great artist’s work.

“The paradox that the most effective propaganda for understanding the Negro problem should be purely visual truth is the essence of Jacob Lawrence’s work. For this young Negro has, in his own words, “tried to paint things as I see them.” In this lies his power as a painter; his perception and his comprehension are never literary, and his mode of expression is pictorial rather than illustrative. Lawrence’s pride (certainly merited) is the fact that his work has reached a wide public through acceptance of museums across the country, a tribute to a painter with a purpose rather than a propagandist.”

Quotes from Lawrence: Quiet Spokesman, Art News, New York, October 15 – 31, 1944.

Lawrence was one of a number of artists included in Great Negroes Past and Present, an iconic publication, by Russell L. Adams, first published in 1963. The book was a bold attempt to bring to a general readership something of the majestic history African Americans and others of African origin had played in the building of, and history of, the US. The brief biographical sketches were of outstanding Africans and Africans who made distinguished contributions to history, to science and industry, to fine arts, to education and religion, and to the performing arts. The biographical sketches were accompanied by illustrations by Eugene Winslow. Numerous personalities were represented in Great Negroes Past and Present, and section XII was dedicated to VISUAL ART, and introduced its readers to artists such as Charles WhiteRobert Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Horace Pippin, Richard H. Hunt, and Jacob Lawrence. 

Each artist was represented by a one page outline included a text, and a portrait rendering of them.

Two of Lawrence’s pieces were reproduced in the International Review of African American Art, Volume 8 Number 2. 

Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, seriagraph

Another Journey Ended (Harriet Tubman Series), 1967

Jacob Lawrence’s work was included in the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, which toured to galleries in the UK and the USA in 1997 and 1998.

Lawrence’s work was discussed and illustrated in Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, one of four books in a series titled Annotating Art’s Histories, jointly published by The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts and iniva the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, published in 2008 and edited by Kobena Mercer. The chapter relating to Lawrence was Diaspora Aesthetics: Exploring the African Diaspora in the Works of Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence and Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Sieglinde Lemke On April 28, 2016, caa.reviews published a review written by Anne Monahan of

Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series Exh. cat. New York and Washington, DC: Museum of Modern Art and Phillips Collection, 2015. 192 pp. Cloth $50.00 (9780870709647)

Exhibition schedule: One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 3–September 7, 2015; People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, September 10, 2016–January 17, 2017


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click to show details of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

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Book relating to a publication, 1997

click to show details of Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

»  Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

Book relating to a publication, 2008

click to show details of International Review of African American Art Volume 8 Number 2

»  International Review of African American Art Volume 8 Number 2

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»  Jacob Lawrence: article in The Studio magazine 1961

Article relating to an individual, 1961

click to show details of Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

»  Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

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»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom

»  The Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington D.C., United States of America

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Coventry, United Kingdom

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San Francisco, United States of America