Though Gwendolyn Knight showed an artistic temperament from early childhood, her career as a professional artist blossomed relatively late in life. After dropping out of art school during the Great Depression, she met and married artist Jacob Lawrence, who became one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. She moved with him as he accepted teaching posts in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Maine, and though she continued to work on her own art, Knight let her husband's career come first. "It wasn't necessary for me to have acclaim," she remarked in a Callaloo magazine interview with Charles H. Rowell quoted in the New York Times. "I just knew that I wanted to do it, so I did it whenever I could."
Knight did not begin publicly exhibiting her work until the 1970s. She became known for her fluid line and bold use of color. The pleasure that Knight took in painting was evident to her audience and to critics. As Seattle gallery owner Francine Seders noted in the Seattle Times, "I really liked the fact that she followed her own style and didn't worry about contemporary things." Remaining productive into her final years, Knight continued to produce works that remained fresh and indicated her consistent growth as an artist until her retirement in 2001.
Influenced by Harlem artists
Born on May 26, 1913, in Bridgetown, Barbados, in the West Indies, Knight immigrated to the United States at age seven. Her father had died when she was two, and she traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, with a foster family. When she was 13, the family relocated to New York City. Knight finished high school in 1930, and enrolled at the Howard University School of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. Her teachers recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue her studies, but financial hardship during these years of the Depression forced her to drop out.
Knight moved back to Harlem and looked for work. With the help of Augusta Savage, a respected sculptor and teacher, she found employment through the Works Projects Administration (WPA). This arm of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal created jobs for millions of unemployed Americans; artists were put to work creating murals, paintings, and sculptures for public buildings, and were also employed in art education. At the same time, Knight continued her fine arts studies, taking classes at the Harlem Community Art Center. In Harlem Knight met Lawrence, who by then had already established a national reputation for his bold and moving paintings, in particular his series on the Great Migration of rural blacks to northern cities after World War I. The couple married in 1941.
As Lawrence's career flourished, Knight continued to paint for enjoyment rather than fame. She moved with her husband to Black Mountain College in Ashville, North Carolina; to Brandeis University, near Boston, Massachusetts; and to Skowhegan, Maine, where he taught at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. The marriage was a happy one; Knight and Lawrence inspired, learned from, and supported each other in their creative endeavors. Knight did not experiment with the various artistic movements of the time, such as abstraction and expressionism, preferring to paint portraits of her friends, studies of dancers, and landscapes. As New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted, these paintings were considered "companion pieces to her husband's work." Knight's images, according to Sheryl Conkelton in the catalog Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, "are not a polemical record of a historical era, nor are they anxiously ambitious in their artistic reach; they simply and quietly render in paint what occupies the artist's mind. They are made to satisfy the artist in her own explorations, and it is the artist's openness to experience and learning as well as the modest intimacy of the works that are part of their great appeal."
Inspired by West African Art
In the early 1960s Knight and Lawrence lived in Nigeria, where Knight became fascinated by West Africa sculpture. She studied these works and met contemporary artists and artisans, observing their techniques. As the artist was quoted as commenting in Contemporary Women Artists, "It is not so much ‘who has influenced one’ as what kinds of art have intrigued and given pleasure and inspiration. For myself I would say West African sculpture because it is powerful and mystical; Asian drawings for their linear beauty and economy of means; and the impressionist school for its use of color and subtlety."
Among Knight's works from this time are "African Memories," a figurative painting influenced by the stylized motifs of Yoruba sculpture; and "Mask V," comprised of geometric motifs adopted by cubist painters. As a writer for Contemporary Women Artists observed, "This painting deftly fuses her African and impressionist influences."
In 1971 Knight and her husband moved to Seattle, Washington, where Lawrence was offered a tenured teaching position. Within a few years Knight began attracting critical attention in her own right. Her first solo exhibit, at the Seattle Art Museum, took place in 1976. She continued to exhibit in Seattle and other neighboring Washington venues, as well as in group shows in California, Florida, and Washington, D.C.. Critics admired her expert and fluid use of line, especially in her depictions of dancers and movement.
Through the 1990s Knight continued to develop her interest in the use of line and color, creating paintings, drawings, and monoprint portraits and figure studies. In the late 1990s, however, her work suddenly took a new direction. She began making quick, fluid sketches of animals, from memory, which she rendered as monoprints, silkscreen prints, and etchings. She continued exhibiting in group shows through the late 1990s, and in 2003 had a major retrospective show at the Tacoma (Washington) Art Museum, Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight. The artist died at her Seattle home in 2005, at age 91.
In 2007 the Seattle Art Museum opened the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence gallery in honor of the two artists and their contribution to the cultural life of the Seattle area. When Knight died she bequeathed several items to the museum and also funded a fellowship to support African-American art and artists. Her works are included in several other collections, including Hampton University; the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota-Minneapolis; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; and the St. Louis Art Museum.
Seattle Art Museum, 1976.
Virginia Lacy Jones Gallery, Atlanta University Center (retrospective), 1988.
Francine Seders Gallery (Seattle, WA), 1994.
Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, Tacoma Art Museum, 2003.
At a Glance …
Born on May 26, 1913, in Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies; died on February 18, 2005, in Seattle, WA; married Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Education: Howard University School of Fine Arts, 1931-33; New School for Social Research, 1960-66; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1968-70.
Awards: Caucus Centennial Medallion, Black Caucus; Centennial Award of Merit, Arizona State University, 1984; National Honor Award, Women's Caucus for Art; Pioneer Award, Twelfth Annual Artists' Salute to Black History Month, 1994; honorary degrees from University of Minnesota and Seattle University.
Conkelton, Sheryl, Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, University of Washington Press and Tacoma Art Museum, 2003.
Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press, 1999.
New York Times, February 27, 2005, p. 1.40.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 2005, p. A1.
Seattle Times, February 19, 2005, p. A1.
"Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Gallery Created for Downtown Expansion Opening May 5," Seattle Art Museum, www.seattleartmuseum.org (July 10, 2007).
The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center, www.jacobandgwenlawrence.org/ (July 10, 2007).
"Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight," HistoryLink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=5120 (July 10, 2007).