Jacob Lawrence: Reluctant Rebel, Renaissance Artist
Do you know about Jacob Lawrence? Would you recognize his art? The stories depicted in his colorful, unique paintings? His legacy? If yes, keep reading! If not, keep reading!
Jacob Lawrence is an artist to remember, cherish, and honor; a standout American painter and printmaker who offers us all a glimpse into the experiences of Black Americans through painting. Whether you are considering purchasing art, studying painting or history, interested in art critique, learning about Black history, celebrating Black History Month, or just are stumbling on his artwork for the first time, Jacob Lawrence is an artist to know.
Jacob Lawrence’s chosen subject was the daily life of African Americans, the painting above highlights how Lawrence valued telling these stories. His painterly technique and layered cubist-style are also evident.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) painted at the intersection of Blackness and Americanness. His paintings preserve Black history and are themselves Black history. He is most famous for his Migration Series panels, 60 works in all, that were painted between 1941 and 1942. These panels, which Lawrence considered a single work of art, tell the story of the Great Migration, the tremendous journey millions of African Americans took, beginning at the start of World War I. They left the South in search of a better life. “Jim Crow laws that codified racial inequality in the South helped drive Lawrence’s parents – and 6 million other African-Americans — to move to cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Along the way, they transformed the music, demographics, and politics of the places they went,” an NPR radio article reported, discussing the 2015 exhibition of Lawrence’s Migration series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These paintings record an important part of American history and speak to the perseverance and resilience embodied by those depicted. As artist Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence’s wife and collaborator said, “Jacob Lawrence’s work celebrates the human quality in man. It celebrates the things that we can do to better our condition. And it celebrates our heroes.”
In the final panel of the Migration series, everything comes full circle with the recurring motif of a train station. Here, a large crowd of African Americans stands shoulder to shoulder on a railroad platform, their bags and suitcases next to them as they wait for the train. Lawrence ends his series on an elliptical note: a prediction that the migration from the South will continue.
Much of his art contains these powerful themes. Lawrence’s paintings honor basic human virtue and often involve scenes of cooperation, building, and depictions of everyday life. “And what he tells a person coming in off the street is that your life is important,” said his friend and former student, artist Barbara Thomas. To those who attempt to categorize his art, Lawrence himself said in an interview, “Some have said my art is social commentary or it’s protest; it couldn’t be anything else if I grew up in the Harlem community, and that was the source of my content, if you want to interpret it that way.”
At fourteen or fifteen years old, while attending a local workshop in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Lawrence found art and painting to be an outlet for expression and an opportunity to experience decision-making, to experience having control. For this young Black man living in Harlem during the Depression, art became an embodiment of freedom. As he learned about his own history, Black American history, at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, he created art that depicted his new awareness. At workshops and in his neighborhood in the 1930s, Lawrence was exposed to the ideas of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois and to the key players of the Harlem Renaissance.
“The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s.” According to an article by the Whitney Museum, whose permanent collection includes Lawrence’s work, and has hosted exhibits about his art, “Of special significance was his exposure to leading black intellectuals and artists of the post-Harlem Renaissance, such as Aaron Douglas, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Richard Wright, each of whom represented different, often opposing points of view about the position of Blacks in American society and the responsibility of artists to address this topic in their work. In his images of Harlem, Lawrence painted his vision of poverty, crime, racial tensions, and police brutality based on his experience of urban life around him. He also portrayed a vibrant, thriving community and the aspirations of its people.”
In an interesting use of perspective and space, Lawrence depicts a busy street scene of commuters after a day’s work. The indistinguishable forms of the commuters coupled with the geometric patterning of the pavement and subway line create a graphic rendering of this street scene.
Lawrence’s art was a form of self-expression. He shared his personal philosophies through his visual presentations. In the short feature, “Jacob Lawrence: An Intimate Portrait, 1993,” produced by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to accompany a 1993 exhibition of his work, Lawrence himself says that his early experiences of family disconnection and then art as a saving grace manifested as paintings focused on liberation and empowerment. He created works and series of paintings on the inspiring lives of Frederick Douglass (painted in 1938), Harriet Tubman (painted in 1939) and Toussaint Louverture (painted in 1937 and 1938), saying he visualized himself into those powerful roles.
He also was commissioned to do a series about Hiroshima in 1983 depicting the devastating impacts of nuclear warfare, and a Genesis series in 1991 honoring the Book of Genesis in the King James version of the Bible reflecting his memories of Baptist Church services in Harlem. The stories Lawrence tells are of everyday people, particularly African Americans, creating, living, and thriving.
As artist Keith Mason, who was greatly inspired by Lawrence reflects, “the splash, the dash, the right angle…his whole aesthetic about how he sees us as a people is glorious.”
Lawrence primarily used brightly colored tempera paint to create “dynamic cubism.” His art is vivid, vibrant, and full of life and energy. It also expresses “rage and pain and anger and blues,” as Mason says. Lawrence was not focused on “beauty” as an intentional aesthetic, but to those who dared label his work as ugly, Lawrence rebuffed that “ugly” is a “character thing and not a physical thing.”
The Migration series’ ‘Panel no. 13’ is one of his most textural works. Here, Lawrence uses color, shading, and light to create an intriguing visual effect. The broad, rough brush strokes produce the appearance of a dry barren field, the sparseness intensified by the bright sunbeams beating down. The stratified land and the sun’s light create a geometric pattern and suggest a cubist inspiration. The sparse trees are also withered, personifying the effects of the South’s depopulation during mass migration.
Gwendolyn Knight said about her husband, “I don’t think he’s so much concerned about art as he is about life.” Artist, professor, social realist, children’s book author, American historian—for Black History Month, and all year long, Jacob Lawrence’s art tells an important American story.
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