Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the foremost American artists of the 20th century, well known for his modernist works depicting daily life, classic and historical narratives, and iconic imagery. He is associated with Social Realism and the Harlem Renaissance, referring to his style as dynamic cubism. Lawrence broke barriers as the first African-American artist to be represented by a New York Gallery, and he became influential in the artistic documentation of African-American life. A prolific painter and printmaker, Lawrence’s best known works include “The Migration of the Negro,” completed in 1941, and series on the lives of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown.
Born in Atlantic City, NJ, Lawrence moved to Harlem with his family when he was a teenager. In after-school classes at the Utopia House, Lawrence was encouraged to paint by artist Charles Alston and formal art classes began in 1932 at the 135th Street Public Library under Alston. He continued his education at the WPA-sponsored Harlem Art Workshop and earned a scholarship to the American Artist’s School in 1937, where he studied with Anton Refregier, Sol Wilson, and Eugene Morley.
Lawrences’s early paintings focused on life in the community of Harlem. He soon began working on a series format to address historical figures and aspects of the African-American experience, as well as genre subjects. Carefully researched and accompanied by often lyrical text, his important series include: Frederick Douglas (1938-1939), Harriet Tubman (1939-1940), Migration of the Negro (1940-1941), and the Harlem series (1942). During the 1950s, Lawrence began to experiment stylistically, his work referring to daily life and stage performances, most notably at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During the late 1960s, his style returned to a more figurative, straightforward style. During the last 30 years of his life, he completed commissions and produced prints, some in support of non-profit organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also painted murals for the Harold Washington Center in Chicago, the University of Washington and Howard University, as well as a 72-foot mural for New York City’s Times Square subway station. During the 1970s, he often produced images of builders and labor.
Lawrence had his first solo show in 1938 at the Harlem YMCA. In 1941, “The Migration Series” was exhibited at New York’s Downtown Gallery. In 1944, his solo show at the Museum of Modern Art was the first ever of a black artist. His various series also began touring nationally at this time, and in 1946, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Major exhibitions featuring his work, include “Jacob Lawrence: American Painter” at the Seattle Museum of Art, WA and “Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series,” organized by the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC and the Museum of Modern Art, NY (1993-95). “Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-40” was organized by Hampton University Museum, VA, and later traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; The Studio Museum of Harlem, NY; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; and M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA (1991-93). In 2001, a major retrospective was organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, later traveling to Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Museum of Modern Art, NY; and Seattle Art Museum, WA. A two-volume catalogue raisonné, “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence,” was published to accompany the retrospective with text by Patricia Hills, Lowery Stokes Sims, Peter T. Nesbett, and Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins.
Lawrence served in the Coast Guard during WWII and began teaching in the 1950s. Over the years he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the Pratt Institute, The New School for Social Research, the Art Students League, and the University of Washington in Seattle.