Skip to main content

Lawrence, Jacob 1917–

Jacob Lawrence 1917

Painter, educator

At a Glance

Inspired by Giotto as Well as Black Aesthetic

Nurtured by Harlem Intellectuals

LOuverture, Tubman, and Douglass

Wartime Inspiration

Broadened Outlook

Selected works

Sources

Jacob Lawrence is Americas most honored black painter. He has been awarded the kind of recognition most artists only dream of: exhibits in major museums; honorary doctorates; prizes; foundation grants; membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Council of the Arts, and the National Academy of Design; an invitation to paint the 1977 presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter; and a National Medal of Arts from President George Bush, bestowed on him in 1990.

Lawrence, who has taught art throughout the country, has also produced commissioned book and magazine illustrations, murals, posters, drawings, and prints. Among these are a 1976 print for the United States Bicentennial, illustrations for a 1983 special edition of John Herseys book Hiroshima, and a 1984 poster for the National Urban League.

At 24 Lawrence became successful nearly overnight when his historic series of 60 paintings, Migration of the Negro depicting the movement of rural southern blacks to the industrial North in search of work during World War Iwas displayed at New York Citys Downtown Gallery in 1941. He made history as the first black artist to be represented by a New York gallery, in the process becoming a standard-bearer for future generations of black artists.

In the decades that followed Lawrence received national acclaim for his powerful paintings about the lives of legendary black historical figures, including eighteenth-century Haitian general and liberator Toussaint LOuverture and American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Major retrospectives of his works were mounted in museums nationwide, among them New Yorks Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Seattle Art Museum in Washington. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, firmly securing his place as the Americas preeminent black artist.

Of Lawrences significance, art reviewer John Russell wrote in the New York Times: Lawrence is one of the great American storytellersor, as might be better said, one of the great tellers of the American story. One by one, key figures in black American experienceToussaint LOuverture, Frederick Douglass, [American abolitionist] John Brown, Harriet Tubmanare presented not in single

At a Glance

Born Jacob Armstead Lawrence, September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, NJ; son of Jacob and Rosalee (Armstead) Lawrence; married Gwendolyn Clarine Knight (a painter), July 24, 1941. Education: Studied with Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn at Works Project Administration (WPA) art classes, Harlem Art Workshop, New York City, 1934-37; studied with Anton Refregier, Sol Wilson, Philip Reisman, and Eugene Moreley, American Artists School, New York City, 1937-39.

Artist; educator. Worked on WPA federal art project, 1939-41; painted in New York City, 1930s-1971, showing at Downtown Gallery, Alan Gallery, and Terry Dintenfass Gallery; taught design and figure drawing at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, 1955-70; exhibited work, 1962, and painted for eight months in Nigeria, 1964; instructor at Art Students League, New York City, 1967-69; taught at University of Washington, Seattle, 1971-83, professor emeritus, 1983; major retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum, 1960; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1974; Seattle Art Museum, 1986; and Art Institute of Chicago and Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992; has also mounted one-man exhibitions as the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Commissioner of the National Council of the Arts. Military service: Served in U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, 1943-45.

Selected awards: Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowships, 1940, 1941, 1942; John Simon Guggenheim post-service fellowship, 1946-47; National Institute of Arts and Letters citation and grant, 1953; Ford Foundation grant, 1960-61; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1970; recipient of National Medal of Arts from President George Bush, 1990; numerous honorary degrees.

Addresses: c/o Seattle Art Museum, Volunteer Park, Seattle, WA 98112.

images but in sequences that have a cumulative effect.... Jacob Lawrences is not an art of protest, or of propaganda. It is history, with all that this implies... [and] the work of a poet, a man of fire and daring.

Lawrence has attributed his success to the black experience that is his heritage. From his youth, Lawrence has faithfully chronicled that experienceparticularly the struggle of black Americans to obtain freedom and justice. As an adult he extended this theme to include all human effort towards liberty. His paintbrush has captured everything from slave revolts and ghetto life to the devastation of war and attempts by blacks and whites to rebuild America. Yet each painting reveals his sense of humor as well as his pain and offers hope for the human condition.

Inspired by Giotto as Well as Black Aesthetic

Lawrences compositionshis customary medium is water-based paint on paper or hardboard panelsoften portray simplified human figures against an array of overlapping abstract forms in brilliant colors and bold designs. The painter has said that his early inspiration came from pre-Renaissance Florentine painter Giotto and 1930s Mexican painter Jose Orozco, who was part of the school of social realism. Above all, Lawrence was quoted as saying in the Crisis that he was inspired by the black aesthetic by which we are surrounded, motivated to manipulate form, color, space, line and texture to depict our life, and stimulated by the beauty and poignancy of our environment.

The oldest of three siblings, Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1930, six years after his parents separated, the boy moved with his mother to New York Citys Harlem, where he finished elementary school and went to Frederick Douglass Junior High School. Much of his black-history education, however, came from the Harlem community and from the leading intellectuals and artists living there in the 1930s.

To keep the children busy while she worked, Lawrences mother sent them to an after-school arts and crafts program at a neighborhood settlement house run by painter and sculptor Charles Alston. Here Lawrence learned to draw, using crayons and poster paints. Alston was one of the first to recognize the budding painters abilities. Lawrence later took classes with him and Henry Bannarn at the Harlem Art Workshop, set up in Alstons studio and funded by the Depression-era federal Works Project Administration (WPA).

Nurtured by Harlem Intellectuals

With money saved from doing odd jobs, Lawrence rented space in Alstons studio so that he could paint. There he met and absorbed the views of Harlems extraordinary black artists, writers, and intellectuals, including Romare Bearden, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke. He also met Augusta Savage, a community-minded sculptor who got him a job with the WPAs Federal Arts Project in 1939. Though Lawrence did not attend her classes, he befriended one of Savages pupils, West Indian painter Gwendolyn Knight, whom he married in 1941.

In 1937 Lawrence won a two-year scholarship to the American Artists School, where he studied with Anton Refregier, Sol Wilson, Philip Reisman, and Eugene Moreley. Though his classes took him out of Harlem, he remained close to the community and made it the focus of his work. Soon his first, vivid Harlem genre paintingsStreet Scene Restaurant, Street Orator, Interior, and Interior Scene were shown with works by his former teachers Alston and Bannarn at the school and as a one-man show at the Harlem YMCA in 1938. Lawrence continued painting Harlem scenes throughout his career, including ones that reflected his growing maturity, which resulted in the works Tombstones, Pool Parlor, Woman With Grocery Bags, and The Apartment.

Inspired by memories of community lectures and discussions, Lawrence also researched the lives of Toussaint LOuverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman and resolved to narrate their dramatic stories through a series of paintings. In 41 scenes known as the Toussaint LOuverture series, the artist told the story of the Haitian general who fought for his countrys independence. When the series was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, it received public and critical praise and marked Lawrences first successful one-man show outside Harlem. About the show, A. D. Emmart commented in the Baltimore Sun, These small sketches, with their economy of flat, sharply defined forms and their variations in a consistent color pattern, are charged with feeling and movement.... As a series, they constitute a striking and original work.

LOuverture, Tubman, and Douglass

Buoyed by this success and driven by his own inner needs, within two years Lawrence had completed a 32-painting series, Frederick Douglass, followed by his 31-painting sequence, Harriet Tubman. The Frederick Douglass series portrayed the life of the abolitionist and editor of the first black newspaper. The Harriet Tubman series depicted the story of the escaped slave who helped others flee north on the Underground Railroad. In 1940 Lawrence received the first of three consecutive Rosenwald Fund fellowships and moved into his own studio, where he began work on his next epic.

When Migration of the Negro was shown at the Downtown Gallery in New York City, it drew such crowds and received such enthusiastic reviews that the Museum of Modern Art, also in New York, and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Phillips Collection), in Washington, D.C., each bought part of the 60-panel series and split it between them. The Downtown Gallery, which represented the nations leading contemporary painters, added Lawrence to their list. In addition to this, having nearly half of the paintings reproduced in Fortune magazine brought him widespread acclaim. At the time, Fortune noted that [Lawrences] use of harsh primary colors and his extreme simplicity of artistic statement have extraordinary force.

In 1941, while on his honeymoon in New Orleans, Lawrence finished a 22-panel series about the life of white abolitionist John Brown, who was hanged for treason after attempting to free southern slaves. Although Ellen Wheat, in her book Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, has called the John Brown series the apogee of Lawrences dramatic narrative abilities, it received mixed reviews when it opened at the Downtown Gallery in 1942though it was later exhibited at museums across the country.

Wartime Inspiration

Lawrence kept painting while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, then in the Navy, from 1943 to 1945. He produced 48 works about his wartime experiences, which were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1945, with Guggenheim Foundation funding, Lawrence completed 14 paintings called War that were based on his memories of serving aboard an overseas troop carrier converted into a hospital. Time magazine called War his best work yet. Also in 1947 Lawrence traveled through the segregated South to document life among blacks during the postwar period, producing ten paintings for Fortune magazine titled In the Heart of the Black Belt.

But the psychological pressures resulting from his dizzying success proved too much for the painter, and in 1949, Lawrence voluntarily admitted himself to Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York, for treatment of a nervous disorder. The personal growth he experienced during nine months there was expressed in 11 works about his fellow patients titled Hospital.

In what Wheat has called his flight into fantasy, Lawrence added more experimental and complex patterns to his designs in the early 1950s abstract Theater series based on his recollection of trips to Harlems famed Apollo Theater. When the series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in 1953, one New York Times reviewer described it as having the shrill color and line that cuts like a hot, sharp knife, revealing the whole nerve of the theater and entertainment world. At the same time, Lawrences continuing series of Harlem paintings became more detailed, with graphic depictions of inner-city decline.

Broadened Outlook

Lawrence broadened his historical outlook in his next series, 1955s Struggle: From the History of the American People. The 60 paintings contained therein depict black and white faces and include scenes of American patriot Paul Reveres midnight ride and the first stagecoach movement west. Years ago, I was just interested in expressing the Negro in American life, Lawrence was quoted as saying in Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, but a larger concern, an expression of humanity and of America, developed. For Lawrence, the black American and the American struggle had become one.

During the explosive 1960s Lawrence produced what some critics have called his most obvious protest worksabout civil rights struggles in the South. One painting, titled The Ordeal of Alice, portrays a young black girl dressed in white attempting to enter a newly desegregated Southern school while demonic tormentors pierce her with arrows in a scene reminiscent of the ordeal of a religious martyr.

In 1963 Lawrence speculated in Newsweek about possible reactions to his work, reflecting, Maybe theyll hate the painter for holding up a mirror. He doesnt like hate, but he cannot drop the mirror because if he did his art would disappear, and himself with it. Still, Lawrence did not formally become part of the black art movement, though he recognized its validity and importance. To me, [the black art label] doesnt matter, he told Wheat in 1984. I work out of my experience, and if somebody wants to call that black art, thats all right.

In the late 1960s Lawrence progressed from portraying scenes of racial injustice to portraying those of racial harmony. His loosely linked Builders series depicts blacks and whites working together on building projects, scenes symbolic of rebuilding society. Observed Wheat, With... Builders, Lawrences work assumes a major shift in tone: it is more philosophical and objective, more symbolic, less regionally specific and emotive.

Despite ever-changing artistic and political trends, Lawrence has remained true to his own creative path. Perhaps New York Times contributor Hilton Kramer best summed up Lawrences life and purpose when he wrote: Unlike other painters of his generation, Mr. Lawrence has never abandoned the social and artistic commitments his work assumed in its earliest stages. The result is a large body of work that is exceptional both in thematic coherence and in sheer expressive force.... Only an artist for whom history is a living issuea matter of personal fate rather then intellectual choicecould have sustained so protracted a commitment.

Selected works

Paintings

Street SceneRestaurant, Street Orator, Interior, Interior Scene, 1936-38.

Toussaint LOuverture series, 1937-38.

Frederick Douglass series, 1938-39.

Harriet Tubman series, 1939-40.

Migration of the Negro series, 1940-41.

John Brown series, 1941.

Harlem series, 1941-42.

Pool Parlor, 1942.

Tombstones, 1942.

The Apartment, 1943.

Woman With Grocery Bags, 1943.

Coast Guard series, 1943-45.

War series, 1946-47.

Hospital series, 1950.

Slums, 1950.

Theater series, 1951-52.

Struggle: From the History of the American People series, 1955-56.

The Ordeal of Alice, 1963.

Wounded Man, 1968.

Builders works, c. 1969.

Illustrated books

Hughes, Langston, One-Way Ticket, Knopf, 1948.

Harriet and the Promised Land, Windmill Books/Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Aesops Fables, Windmill Books/Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Hersey, John, Hiroshima, Limited Editions Club, 1983.

Selected commissioned works include In the Heart of the Black Belt, Fortune magazine, 1947, and George Washington Bush, State of Washington, 1973 (paintings); President Carters Inaugural Ceremony, Presidential Inauguration Committee, 1977 (print); 1972 Olympic Games, Edition Olympia, 1972 (poster); cover portrait of Jesse Jackson, Time magazine, 1970; the murals Origins, Howard University, 1984; tribute to Chicago mayor Harold Washington, Harold Washington Library, 1992; Times Square restoration project, New York City, c. 1992; and Kingdome stadium project, Seattle.

Sources

Books

Wheat, Ellen, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, University of Washington Press, 1986.

Periodicals

Art in America, February 1988.

Baltimore Sun, February 5, 1939.

Crisis, August/September 1970.

Ebony, September 1992.

Fortune, November 1941.

Newsweek, April 15, 1963.

New York Times, February 1, 1953; May 18, 1974; October 11, 1987.

Portraits, 1992.

Time, December 22, 1947.

Alison Carb Sussman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lawrence-jacob-1917

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lawrence-jacob-1917

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (born 1917) was an African-American painter whose works depict his passionate concern for the plight of his people.

Born in Atlantic City, N. J., on Sept. 7, 1917, Jacob Lawrence was reared in Harlem in New York City, which provided the background for many of his works. He studied at the Uptopia Neighborhood House, attended a special class at the West 135th Street Library, and later studied at the Harlem Workshop.

During the Depression, Lawrence was accepted on a Federal Arts Project (WPA). He credited this valuable opportunity to the influence of the African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. During this period, he met many artists of varying backgrounds who offered him vital encouragement. Several years later, he received the prestigious Rosenwald grant-in-aid, which made it possible for him to acquire his first studio. With his colleagues—Romare Bearden, the painter, and writers William Attaway and Claude McKay— Lawrence established his studio in a building on West 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. By this time he had met another young artist, Gwen Knight, and they were married shortly before World War II.

The advent of Pearl Harbor and the opening of Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York City occurred the same week. Halpert's gallery was important because it featured the first comprehensive show by African-American artists ever presented in an "Establishment" showcase. Lawrence's paintings were received with great enthusiasm. As a result, Halpert invited Lawrence to join her "stable" of artists.

Lawrence also had notable success as a teacher. He was an instructor at the Art Students League in New York City and taught at various times at Brandeis University, Black Mountain College, the Skohegan School in Maine, and the University of California, among others. In 1970 Lawrence became professor and coordinator of the arts at Pratt Institute in New York City. He also traveled widely, including Africa in his journeys.

As a narrative painter, Lawrence did not confine his work to a single picture. Instead, he often required 20 or 30 panels to complete his concept. For example, "The Migration of the Negro" series (1940-1941) comprised 60 paintings. In a most graphic way the series tells of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the 1920s and 1930s. His other notable series concerned the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—all but one African-American historical figures.

Lawrence's works are in the collections of several major American museums as well as numerous private collections. He received many honors, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant in 1953 and the distinguished Spingarn Medal awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1970. The citation of this award paid tribute to "the compelling power of his work, which has opened to the world beyond these shores a window on the Negro's condition in the United States."

Lawrence was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His book Harriet and the Promised Land (1968) examines Harriet Tubman's abolitionist work.

Having passed into his eighth decade, Lawrence continues to create his powerful work. His art is, in fact, enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Recent showings of Lawrence's paintings in Chicago and Washington D.C. have drawn praise from the press, not the least of which was a statement from Time magazine, which summed up his works as "arguably still the best treatment of [the] black-American historical experience by a black artist."

Further Reading

Henri Ghent, Eight Afro-American Artists (1971), is a catalog of an exhibition held at the Rath Museum, Switzerland. Aline B. Saarinen, Jacob Lawrence (1960), is a catalog of a retrospective exhibition circulated by the American Federation of Arts. See also Cedric Dover, American Negro Art (1960), and James A. Porter, Modern Negro Art (1969). Lawrence is discussed in several background works: Sheldon Cheney, Story of Modern Art (1941; rev. ed. 1958), and Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900: A Critical History (1967).

Additional Sources

Wheat, Ellen, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, University of Washington Press, 1986.

Art in America, February, 1988.

Time, November 22, 1993. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jacob Lawrence." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Jacob Lawrence." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jacob-lawrence

"Jacob Lawrence." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jacob-lawrence

Lawrence, Jacob

Jacob Lawrence, 1917–2000, American painter, b. Atlantic City, N.J. In Lawrence's work social themes, often detailing the African-American experience, are expressed in colorfully angular, simplified, expressive, and richly decorative figurative effects. He executed many cycles of paintings, often narrative, including Harriet Tubman (1939–40), Migration (completed 1941, Museum of Modern Art and Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Coast Guard (1943–45), and Builders series, on which he worked for parts of the last 50 years of his life. His War series and Tombstones are in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. Also known for the vivid prints he began producing in 1963 and his monumental mosaic mural (designed 1997, installed 2001) for the New York subway system, Lawrence taught at Black Mountain College, the Univ. of Washington School of Art, several other colleges, and a number of major New York City art schools. In 1941 he married Gwendolyn Knight, 1913–2005, an American painter and sculptor, b. Bridgetown, Barbados.

See P. T. Nesbett and M. DuBois, The Complete Jacob Lawrence (2000); P. T. Nesbett, Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints (1963–2000) (2001); P. Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence (2010); biography by E. H. Wheat (1986, repr. 1990).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lawrence, Jacob." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lawrence, Jacob." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lawrence-jacob

"Lawrence, Jacob." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lawrence-jacob

Lawrence, Jacob 1917–2000

Jacob Lawrence 19172000

Artist

At a Glance

Discovered Art in Harlem

First Works Exhibited

Migration of the Negro

Protest Works

Selected Works

Illustrated books

Selected Commissioned Works

Sources

Jacob Lawrence was Americas most honored black painter. He received the kind of recognition most artists only dream of: exhibits in major museums; honorary doctorates; prizes; foundation grants; membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Council of the Arts, and the National Academy of Design; an invitation to paint the 1977 presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter; and a National Medal of Arts from President George Bush, bestowed on him in 1990. Lawrence, who taught art throughout the country, also produced commissioned book and magazine illustrations, murals, posters, drawings, and prints. Among these are a 1976 print for the United States Bicentennial, illustrations for a 1983 special edition of John Herseys book Hiroshima, and a 1984 poster for the National Urban League.

At 24 Lawrence became successful nearly overnight when his historic series of 60 paintings, Migration of the Negro depicting the movement of rural southern blacks to the industrial North in search of work during World War Iwas displayed at New York Citys Downtown Gallery in 1941. He made history as the first black artist to be represented by a New York gallery, in the process becoming a standard-bearer for future generations of black artists.

In the decades that followed Lawrence received national acclaim for his powerful paintings about the lives of legendary black historical figures, including eighteenth-century Haitian general and liberator Toussaint LOuverture and American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tub-man. Major retrospectives of his works were mounted in museums nationwide, among them New Yorks Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Seattle Art Museum in Washington. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, firmly securing his place as the Americas preeminent black artist.

Of Lawrences significance, art reviewer John Russell wrote in the New York Times: Lawrence is one of the great American storytellersor, as might be better said, one of the great tellers of the American story. One by one, key figures in black American experienceToussaint LOuverture, Frederick Douglass, [American abolitionist] John Brown, Harriet Tubmanare presented not in single images but in sequences that have a cumulative effect. Jacob Lawrences is not an art of protest, or of propaganda. It is history, with all that this

At a Glance

Born Jacob Armstead Lawrence, September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, NJ; died June 9, 2000, in Seattle, WA; son of Jacob and Rosaiee (Armstead) Lawrence; married Gwendolyn Clarine Knight (a painter), July 24, 1941. Education: Studied with Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn at Works Project Administration (WPA) art classes, Harlem Art Workshop, New York City, 1934-37; studied with Anton Refregier, Sol Wilson, Philip Reisman, and Eugene Moreley, American Artists School, New York City, 1937-39. Military Service: Served in U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, 1943-45.

Career: Artist, educator. Worked on WPA federal art project, 1939-41; painted in New York City, 1930s-71, showing at Downtown Gallery, Alan Gallery, and Terry Dintenfass Gallery; taught design and figure drawing at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 1955-70; exhibited work, 1962; painted for eight months in Nigeria, 1964; instructor at Art Students League, New York City, 1967-69; taught at University of Washington, Seattle, 1971-83, professor emeritus, 1983-; major retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum, 1960; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1974; Seattle Art Museum, 1986; and Art Institute of Chicago and Studio Museum in Harlem, 1992; mounted one-man exhibitions as the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; commissioner of the National Council of the Arts.

Awards: Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowships, 1940, 1941, 1942; John Simon Guggenheim post-service fellowship, 1946-47; National Institute of Arts and Letters citation and grant, 1953; Ford Foundation grant, 1960-61; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1970; recipient of National Medal of Arts from President George Bush, 1990; numerous honorary degrees.

implies[and] the work of a poet, a man of fire and daring.

Lawrence attributed his success to the black experience that is his heritage. From his youth, Lawrence faithfully chronicled that experienceparticularly the struggle of black Americans to obtain freedom and justice. As an adult he extended this theme to include all human effort towards liberty. His paintbrush captured everything from slave revolts and ghetto life to the devastation of war and attempts by blacks and whites to rebuild America. Yet each painting reveals his sense of humor as well as his pain and offers hope for the human condition.

Lawrences compositionshis customary medium is water-based paint on paper or hardboard panelsoften portray simplified human figures against an array of overlapping abstract forms in brilliant colors and bold designs. His early inspiration came from pre-Renaissance Florentine painter Giotto and 1930s Mexican painter Jose Orozco, who was part of the school of social realism. Above all, as Lawrence said in the Crisis, he was inspired by the black aesthetic by which we are surrounded, motivated to manipulate form, color, space, line and texture to depict our life, and stimulated by the beauty and poignancy of our environment.

Discovered Art in Harlem

The oldest of three siblings, Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1930, six years after his parents separated, the boy moved with his mother to New York Citys Harlem. It was a crowded, teeming place, and the public school Lawrence attended, Frederick Douglass Junior High, was considered among the roughest in the area. But Harlem in the 1930s was also the center the Harlem Renaissance and many African American artists, writers, musicians, and scholars lived there.

To keep the children busy while she worked, Lawrences mother sent them to an after-school arts and crafts program at a neighborhood settlement house run by painter and sculptor Charles Alston. Here Lawrence learned to draw, using crayons and poster paints. He found satisfaction in drawing brightly-colored geometric designs. He soon moved on to elaborate patterns and developed his own method of painting in which particular shapes were rendered in corresponding colors, one at a time. For example, he would paint all the triangles in red, then do all the squares in yellow, and so on. Lawrence continued in this mode through much of his career and this consistency of color is apparent in the artists later series of story panels.

Lawrence drew inspiration from the books and magazines he found at the center where the classes were held. Once, he discovered an article about a famous artist who made papier-maché masks. Lawrence asked Alston to show him how to mix papier-maché, and then proceeded to create several colorful masks. In another artistic attempt, Lawrence fashioned three-sided scenes out of cardboard boxes. Like miniature theater sets, the scenes depicted locales in Harlemstores, barbershops, houses, and newsstands.

Charles Alston was one of the first to recognize the budding painters abilities. Lawrence later took classes with him and Henry Bannarn at the Harlem Art Workshop, set up in Alstons studio and funded by the Depression-era federal Works Project Administration (WPA).

With money saved from doing odd jobs, Lawrence rented space in Alstons studio so that he could paint. There he met and absorbed the views of Harlems extraordinary black artists, writers, and intellectuals, including Romare Bearden, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke. He also met Augusta Savage, a community-minded sculptor who got him a job with the WPAs Federal Arts Project in 1939. Though Lawrence did not attend her classes, he befriended one of Savages pupils, West Indian painter Gwendolyn Knight, whom he married in 1941.

First Works Exhibited

In 1937 Lawrence won a two-year scholarship to the American Artists School, where he studied with Anton Refregier, Sol Wilson, Philip Reisman, and Eugene Moreley. Though his classes took him out of Harlem, he remained close to the community and made it the focus of his work. Soon his first, vivid Harlem genre paintingsStreet Scene-Restaurant, Street Orator, Interior, and Interior Scene were shown with works by his former teachers Alston and Bannarn at the school and as a one-man show at the Harlem YMCA in 1938. Lawrence continued painting Harlem scenes throughout his career, including ones that reflected his growing maturity, which resulted in the works Tombstones, Pool Parlor, Woman With Grocery Bags, and The Apartment.

Inspired by memories of community lectures and discussions, Lawrence also researched the lives of Toussaint LOuverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman and resolved to narrate their dramatic stories through a series of paintings. In 41 scenes known as the Toussaint LOuverture series, the artist told the story of the Haitian general who fought for his countrys independence. When the series was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, it received public and critical praise and marked Lawrences first successful one-man show outside Harlem. About the show, A. D. Emmart commented in the Baltimore Sun, These small sketches, with their economy of flat, sharply defined forms and their variations in a consistent color pattern, are charged with feeling and movement As a series, they constitute a striking and original work.

Buoyed by this success and driven by his own inner needs, within two years Lawrence had completed a 32-painting series, Frederick Douglass, followed by his 31-painting sequence, Harriet Tubman.The Frederick Douglass series portrayed the life of the abolitionist and editor of the first black newspaper. The Harriet Tubman series depicted the story of the escaped slave who helped others flee north on the Underground Railroad. In 1940 Lawrence received the first of three consecutive Rosenwald Fund fellowships and moved into his own studio, where he began work on his next epic.

Migration of the Negro

When Migration of the Negro was shown at the Downtown Gallery in New York City, it drew such crowds and received such enthusiastic reviews that the Museum of Modern Art, also in New York, and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Phillips Collection), in Washington, D.C., each bought part of the 60-panel series and split it between them. The Downtown Gallery, which represented the nations leading contemporary painters, added Lawrence to their list. In addition to this, having nearly half of the paintings reproduced in Fortune magazine brought him widespread acclaim. At the time, Fortune noted that [Lawrences] use of harsh primary colors and his extreme simplicity of artistic statement have extraordinary force.

In 1941, while on his honeymoon in New Orleans, Lawrence finished a 22-panel series about the life of white abolitionist Jonn Brown, who was hanged for treason after attempting to free southern slaves. Although Ellen Wheat, in her book Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, called the John Brown series the apogee of Lawrences dramatic narrative abilities, it received mixed reviews when it opened at the Downtown Gallery in 1942though it was later exhibited at museums across the country.

Lawrence kept painting while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, then in the Navy, from 1943 to 1945. He produced 48 works about his wartime experiences, which were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1945, with Guggenheim Foundation funding, Lawrence completed 14 paintings called War that were based on his memories of serving aboard an overseas troop carrier converted into a hospital. Time magazine called War his best work yet. Also in 1947 Lawrence traveled through the segregated South to document life among blacks during the postwar period, producing ten paintings for Fortune magazine titled In the Heart of the Black Belt.

But the psychological pressures resulting from his dizzying success proved too much for the painter, and in 1949, Lawrence, voluntarily admitted himself to Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York, for treatment of a nervous disorder. The personal growth he experienced during nine months there was expressed in 11 works about his fellow patients titled Hospital.

In what Wheat called his flight into fantasy, Lawrence added more experimental and complex patterns to his designs in the early 1950s abstract Theater series based on his recollection of trips to Harlems famed Apollo Theater. When the series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in 1953, one New York Times reviewer described it as having the shrill color and line that cuts like a hot, sharp knife, revealing the whole nerve of the theater and entertainment world. At the same time, Lawrences continuing series of Harlem paintings became more detailed, with graphic depictions of inner-city decline.

Lawrence broadened his historical outlook in his next series, 1955s Struggle: From the History of the American People.The 60 paintings contained therein depict black and white faces and include scenes of American patriot Paul Reveres midnight ride and the first stagecoach movement west. Years ago, I was just interested in expressing the Negro in American life, Lawrence was quoted as saying in Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, but a larger concern, an expression of humanity and of America, developed. For Lawrence, the black American and the American struggle had become one.

Protest Works

During the explosive 1960s Lawrence produced what some critics have called his most obvious protest worksabout civil rights struggles in the South. One painting, titled The Ordeal of Alice, portrays a young black girl dressed in white attempting to enter a newly desegregated Southern school while demonic tormentors pierce her with arrows in a scene reminiscent of the ordeal of a religious martyr.

In 1963 Lawrence speculated in Newsweek about possible reactions to his work, reflecting, Maybe theyll hate the painter for holding up a mirror. He doesnt like hate, but he cannot drop the mirror because if he did his art would disappear, and himself with it. Still, Lawrence did not formally become part of the black art movement, though he recognized its validity and importance. To me, [the black art label] doesnt matter, he told Wheat in 1984. I work out of my experience, and if somebody wants to call that black art, thats all right.

In the late 1960s Lawrence progressed from portraying scenes of racial injustice to portraying those of racial harmony. His loosely linked Builders series depicts blacks and whites working together on building projects, scenes symbolic of rebuilding society. Observed Wheat, WithBuilders, Lawrences work assumes a major shift in tone: it is more philosophical and objective, more symbolic, less regionally specific and emotive.

Despite ever-changing artistic and political trends, Lawrence remained true to his own creative path. Perhaps New York Times contributor Hilton Kramer best summed up Lawrences life and purpose when he wrote: Unlike other painters of his generation, Mr. Lawrence never abandoned the social and artistic commitments his work assumed in its earliest stages. The result is a large body of work that is exceptional both in thematic coherence and in sheer expressive force. Only an artist for whom history is a living issuea matter of personal fate rather then intellectual choicecould have sustained so protracted a commitment. In 1999, Lawrence and his wife began plans to found an art center in Harlem.

After a long illness Jacob Lawrence died in Seattle on June 9, 2000. His life and works, however, would not soon be forgotten. In November of 2000, a retrospective of his works was held in memoriam at Washington D.C.s Moore Gallery. That same year, a two-volume scholarly monograph entitled The Complete Jacob Lawrence was published. Throughout his life Lawrence remained committed to his art, illuminating basic human struggles with hopeful colors.

Selected Works

Paintings:Street Scene-Restaurant, Street Orator, Interior, Interior Scene, 1936-38.

Toussaint LOuverture series, 1937-38.

Frederick Douglass series, 1938-39.

Harriet Tubman series, 1939-40.

Migration of the Negro series, 1940-41.

John Brown series, 1941.

Harlem series, 1941-42.

Pool Parlor, 1942.

Tombstones, 1942.

The Apartment, 1943.

Woman With Grocery Bags, 1943.

Coast Guard series, 1943-45.

War series, 1946-47.

Hospital series, 1950.

Slums, 1950.

Theater series, 1951-52.

Struggle: From the History of the American People series, 1955-56.

The Ordeal of Alice, 1963.

Wounded Man, 1968.

Builders works, C. 1969.

Illustrated books

Hughes, Langston, One-Way Ticket, Knopf, 1948.

Harriet and the Promised Land, Windmill Books/Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Aesops Fables, Windmill Books/Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Hersey, John, Hiroshima, Limited Editions Club, 1983.

Selected Commissioned Works

In the Heart of the Black Belt, Fortune magazine, 1947.

George Washington Bush (paintings) State of Washington, 1973.

President Carters Inaugural Ceremony (print), Presidential Inauguration Committee, 1977.

1972 Olympic Games (poster), Edition Olympia, 1972.

Cover portrait of Jesse Jackson, Time magazine, 1970.

Tribute to Chicago mayor Harold Washington (mural), Harold Washington Library, 1992.

Times Square restoration project (mural), New York City, c. 1992.

Kingdome stadium project (mural), Seattle.

Sources

Books

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Gale, 1999.

Periodicals

Art in America, February 1988; September 2000.

Baltimore Sun, February 5, 1939.

Crisis, August/September 1970.

Ebony, September 1992.

Fortune, November 1941.

Library Journal, January 1, 2001.

Newsweek, April 15, 1963.

New York Times, February 1, 1953; May 18, 1974; October 11, 1987.

Portraits, 1992.

Time, December 22, 1947.

Alison Carb Sussman and Jennifer M. York

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–2000." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–2000." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lawrence-jacob-1917-2000

"Lawrence, Jacob 1917–2000." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lawrence-jacob-1917-2000