Jacob Lawrence was an American painter in a social realist style. Unlike other painters, like Thomas Heart Benton and Edward Hopper, who painted sentimental subject matter, Lawrence's work addressed common experiences of African Americans, rendered in water-based paint usually on paper. His work had abstract qualities and documented important experiences and popular culture in African American communities. In addition to painting and drawing, Lawrence was also an illustrator, engraver, lithographer and screen printer. He became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Jacob was born on September 7, 1917 in Atlantic City New Jersey, the son of Southern parents who relocated during the Great Migration. The Family moved to Easton Pennsylvaina when Jacob was 2 years old. His parents divorced in 1924 and his mother put Jacob and his siblings in foster care in Philadelphia, until 1930.At that time, 13-year-old Jacob and his mother relocated to Harlem, New York at the onset of the Great Depression. She enrolled him in after-school art classes at the Utopia Children's Center. Later at 16, Jacob dropped out of school and worked in a laundromat and printing plant, while studying art at the Harlem Art Workshop with Charles Alston. **
From there Jacob went to the Harlem Community Art Center, where he met Augusta Savage, ** through whom Jacob received a scholarship to study at the American Artists School. At this time, Jacob produced three narrative cycles of paintings on black heroes from the past - Toussaint L'Ouverture,* Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
Later he continued his study with Harlem Renaissance artist Henry Banam at the Alston-Banam workshop. In 1939 and with funded by a grant from the Federal Art Project, Lawrence began research for a series of paintings about The Great Migration and the arrival of African American families to industrial northern cities. Jacob researched for this series with the detail of a scholar at the New York Public Library branch on 135th street, which is now the Schaumberg Center for Research in Black Culture. Having limited income, He used inexpensive materials, like pencil, ink and tempera paint on hardboard. Another artist, Gwendolyn Knight (whom he married later) helped him transfer his drawings on to gessoed panels, which would last much longer than paper. Jacob would then fill in the shapes with paint straight out of the jar, which resulted in the bright coloration of the work. Each image had a caption taken from a magazine he read for his research. This series was a vivid story board of the Great Migration, the way Lawrence knew it. Themes included images of backbreaking labor, and cell-like rooms to show what migrants had left behind in the South. Other images depicted trains headed north, and cityscapes.
Even before he finished these paintings in 1941, Lawrence had already achieved acclaim from the Harlem cultural establishment. He was also the first African American artist to be represented by a New York Gallery when his "Migration Series" was shown at the Downtown Gallery, on East 51st Street. Unfortunately, the works did not remain together as a single series, a stipulation Lawrence neglected to convey to his dealer Mrs. Edith Halpert. As it happened, Lawrence had relocated to New Orleans to learn about southern culture when Mrs. Halpert negotiated the sale in a way that broke up the series. All the even numbered images went to MoMA and all the odd-numbered works went to the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. It wouldn't be until 2015 that The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) showed all 60 of these paintings together in the exhibition, "One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North," according to a New York Times review.
During World War II Lawrence served in the Coast Guard where he produced a series of War paintings. After the war He received a Guggenhem Fellowship and painted his War Series. He was also invited to study at Black Mountain College with Josef Albers. The college arranged for Jacob and Gwendolyn to travel in a private railroad car so they would not have to relocate to a segragated coach for Black passengers when the train crossed the Mason Dixon Line.
In 1971, Lawrence accepted a tenured position as professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Much of the rest of his life was devoted to painting commissions, and the production of limited-edition prints, with proceeds going to nonprofits like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Children's Defense Fund and the Schaumburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His murals also appear in Chicago's Harold Washington Library, the University of Washington, and Howard University. A 72-foot mural was installed in New York City's Times Square subway station. Jacob Lawrence passed away after a distinguished career, in the year 2000.
* The 41 pictures of the Touissant L'Ouverture series addressed to Haiti's struggle for independence in the 19th century.
** Charles Alston and Augusta Savage were members of The 306 Group, a collective of African American artists who worked and socialized together in Harlem in the 1930s. The group derived its name from the street address of the studio, 306 W. 141st Street, and also included and Henry Banam Elba Lightfoot, and Romare Bearden.
Page author: C.F.