Atlantic City, New Jersey
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.
- 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.
Biography of Jacob Lawrence
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 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 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.
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.
Influences and Connections
- Romare Bearden
- Robert Colescott
- Hank Willis Thomas
- Kerry James Marshall
- Alexis Gideon
- Barbara Earl Thomas
- Mary Randlett
Useful Resources on Jacob Lawrence
- Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (2015)Our PickA complete catalogue of the artists' famed works in the Migration Series
- The Great Migration: An American StoryOur PickBy Jacob Lawrence / Comprehensive look at Lawrence's most famous collection of works
- Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935-1999): A Catalogue Raisonne (2001)By Peter T. Nesbett / A collection of prominent works by the artist
- Jacob Lawrence: American Painter (1986)A comprehensive survey of works by the artist
- Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints (1963-2000), A Catalogue Raisonne (2001)A closer look at the printed works by the artist
- Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward, Paintings, 1936-1999 (2008)A collection of paintings by the artist featuring narratives of daily African American life
- Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-1940 (1991)Survey of works highlighting cultural icons, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass
- The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Legacy Resource Center WebsiteOur PickVery comprehensive information on Jacob Lawrence
- Jacob Lawrence: The Migration SeriesOur PickPhillips Collection site spotlighting the famous series
- One Way TicketOur PickMoMA supplemental site featuring information and images about the monumental exhibition of Lawrence's Migration Series
- Jacob Lawrence: Harlem Walking TourOur PickPodcast that provides details on the Harlem neighborhood areas of importance in relation to Lawrence's work
- Jacob Lawrence: The Migration SeriesOur PickBy Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall / The New York Times / June 24, 2015
- Jacob Lawrence's 1941 Paintings Spark Talk About Racial Injustice TodayOur PickBy Colton Valentine / July 28, 2015
- The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great MigrationOur PickBy Isabel Wilkerson / Smithsonian Magazine / September 2016
- Jacob Lawrence and the making of the Migration SeriesOur PickInterview by the Phillips Collection, highlighting the artists' context for his famous series
- Artist Interviews /// Jacob LawrenceOur PickBiographical interviews and context on Lawrence's life and art making practices
- Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and the Legacy of Jim CrowOur PickA MoMA seminar on the importance of Lawrence's Migration Series in socio-political contexts
- Jacob Lawrence, The Migration SeriesCompilation of works featured in the Migration Series, including scholarly narration for each work