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Jacob Lawrence

American Painter

Jacob Lawrence Photo
Movements and Styles: Social Realism, Harlem Renaissance

Born: September 7, 1917 - Atlantic City, New Jersey

Died: June 9, 2000 - Seattle, Washington

"The community [in Harlem] let me develop...I painted the only way I knew how to paint...I tried to put the images down the way I related to the community...I was being taught...to see."

Jacob Lawrence Signature

Summary of Jacob Lawrence

Achieving success early in his career, Jacob Lawrence combined Social Realism, modern abstraction, pared down composition, and bold color to create compelling stories of African American experiences and the history of the United States. Drawing on his own life and what he witnessed in his Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Lawrence strove to communicate human struggles and aspirations that resonated with diverse viewers. Coming to artistic maturity during the waning of the Harlem Renaissance and the waxing of Abstract Expressionism, Lawrence charted a unique path, telling poignant stories of migration, war, and mental illness, among others, and would become a powerful influence for younger African American and African artists. While often drawing on the specific experiences of African Americans, Lawrence's long-running and prolific career produced an oeuvre that speaks dramatically, graphically, and movingly to viewers of all colors and persuasions.

Key Ideas

Early in his career, Lawrence's artistic process relied on a vast amount of historical research. Spending hours at the public library pouring over historical texts, memoirs, and newspapers and attending history clubs that were then popular in Harlem, Lawrence translated these histories into images and linked them to contemporary political struggles both in the North and the Jim Crow segregated South, reinvigorating traditional history painting.
Lawrence often worked in series, creating numerous individual panels, to tell a story. Influenced by avant-garde cinema, Lawrence's series often have a montage-effect, but he used structural strategies, such as a unified color palette and recurring motifs, to connect the individual paintings into a coherent whole.
Lawrence borrowed strategies from print media to make his stories based in experiential reality as compelling as possible . He paired long, descriptive captions with his paintings as was common in photo magazines and books in the 1930s and 1940s. Additionally, Lawrence used flat, unmodulated colors in large planes that had the quality of print graphics.
Lawrence's use of abstraction in depicting the characters of his stories allow those stories, even if historically specific, to have more universal appeal, as the viewer can imagine him or herself in similar positions. Lawrence's ability to imbue the particular drama of everyday life with the gravitas of collective, or universal, humanity is one of his greatest artistic feats.
Jacob Lawrence Photo

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.

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