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Jacob Lawrence

American Painter

Jacob Lawrence Photo
Born: September 7, 1917
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died: June 9, 2000
Seattle, Washington
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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

Biography of Jacob Lawrence

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.

Important Art by Jacob Lawrence

The Frederick Douglass series, Panel 28 (1938-39)

The Frederick Douglass series, Panel 28 (1938-39)

The full text of Panel 28 from The Frederick Douglass Series reads: "A cowardly and bloody riot took place in New York in July 1863 - a mob fighting the draft, a mob willing to fight to free the Union, a mob unwilling to fight to free slaves, a mob that attacked every colored person within reach disregarding sex or age. They hanged Negroes, burned their homes, dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp posts. The colored populace took refuge in cellars and garrets. This mob was part of the rebel force, without the rebel uniform but with all its deadly hate. It was the fire of the enemy opened in the rear of the loyal army."

Panel 28 uses simplified forms, a limited color palette, and a clear narrative progression from left to right in tandem with evocative, descriptive text. A group of freed slaves huddle in a shelter, watching the carnage of a Civil War anti-draft riot with expressions of horror and sorrow. Lawrence divided the panel into three dramatic groups. The first group depicts two adults and a child, wide-eyed with fear as they witness the brutality of the riot. The second, middle group shows an older woman, symbolizing an older generation with memories of slavery and the commonality of violence, sheltering a young child who, perhaps unused to such scenes, is seemingly distracted, and grasps the woman's thumb. The third grouping, a mother, father, and infant, symbolizes the hope and fear of a generation born at the cusp of great change and the promise of freedom throughout the United States tantalizingly at hand. Lawrence later recalled the work's important political gestures as "some of the most successful statements I have made in my life ."

Working with a palette of browns, bright red, yellow-orange, black, white, and blue, Lawrence created his figures as non-naturalistic color blocks, their limbs elongated, their torsos concealed beneath blocky clothing, and their facial features simplified to eyes and mere outlines of a nose and mouth. These compositional decisions eliminate extraneous background details that would take away from the poignant emotions of the narrative. Art historian Elizabeth Hutton Turner has said of Lawrence's works in series that they were conceived as "image and word" together, with the works' "poetry" emerging from the "repetition of certain shapes" linking one panel to the next. In Frederick Douglass, the woven basket, made by slaves, acts as a reminder of slave labor, the work of the Black American journey to freedom, and the continual presence of an oppressive past even in a seemingly safer present. The red flower symbolizes hope, and its appearance in Frederick Douglass panels suggests the promise of a better life, even in the most dire of circumstances.

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 22 (1940-41)

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 22 (1940-41)

The full text of Panel 22 from The Migration of the Negro series reads: "Another of the social causes of the migrants' leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation."

Lawrence's most famous narrative series, his 60-panel The Migration of the Negro, perfected his signature combination of historical storytelling and abstracted style. In Panel 22, Lawrence used an interplay between linear design and unmodulated color planes to suggest the indignities of Black imprisonment in the pre-Migration-era American South. The incarcerated men are depicted as large, imposing figures, with their heads hanging down, and their broad backs and shoulders extending almost the width of the panel. Despite their size, their immobility suggests their disempowerment in the face of a racist law enforcement and judicial system. Trapped behind bars, with golden handcuffs linking them one to the next, they appear like chattel. The men's slumped shoulders and the dramatic color contrast between the darkness of the men's clothes and grim prison interior, and the bright blue sky beyond the prison confines suggest the men's longing for the freedom they cannot access. Yet, in Panel 22, Lawrence implies that even if the men reached the northern United States and the world of blue sky beyond the prison, ultimately, the men couldn't outrun the root cause of their imprisonment. The echo between the pinstripes on the far-right man's pants and the vertical bars over the jail cell window suggest that as long as racism dictates penal strategy, the men will remain targets for persecution.

This is Harlem (1943)

This is Harlem (1943)

With This is Harlem, Lawrence transformed a busy Harlem neighborhood into a series of geometric abstract planes connected to each other by a limited, consistent color palette of brown, blue, yellow, red, black, white, and burnt-red-orange tones. On the roof of the buildings, rectangles and triangles in red, yellow, brown, and black create a back-and-forth interplay between abstraction and figuration. They appear to be chimneys and various structures and at the same time suggest geometric, abstract paintings. Similarly, the human figures populating the Harlem landscape, created with minimal detail and in the same unmodulated color tones Lawrence used for the landscape, appear to dissolve into abstract color planes as much as they represent unique actors, going about the business of daily life.

This is Harlem demonstrates Lawrence's commitment to depicting the intricacies of Black life in Harlem, in particular the social and religious importance of the church and church community. As a predominantly white-toned building, composed with triangular and horizontal rectangular shapes, the church stands out from the painting's other buildings, indicating the centrality of it to African-American life. Similarly, Lawrence used repeated geometric shapes, colors, and references to Christian iconography to suggest the pervasiveness of religion in Harlem, extending from the church and into the secular world of everyday life. For instance, the yellow, blue, and red abstract geometric shapes composing the church's stained glass windows parallel the yellow, blue, and red abstract shapes which create the surrounding apartment units, and the iconography of the cross can be found not only on the church itself, but also in the shapes of the telephone poles and fire escapes.

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Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jacob Lawrence Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 12 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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