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Jacob Lawrence: Celebrated painter of the African-American experience

Jacob Lawrence was one of the most important artists of the 20th century, widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures.

Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence moved with his family to Harlem in 1930, where he came into contact with some of the greatest artistic and intellectual minds of his generation. In the previous decade, Harlem had experienced a remarkably creative period known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the neighborhood was still the focal point of African-American culture. Before he was twenty years old, Lawrence had developed a powerful, concise style that expressed all of the vibrancy and pathos of the neighborhood and its occupants.

At 24 Lawrence became successful nearly overnight when his historic series of 60 paintings, Migration of the Negro —depicting the movement of rural southern blacks to the industrial North in search of work during World War I—was displayed at New York City’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. He made history as the first black artist to be represented by a New York gallery, in the process of becoming a standard-bearer for future generations of black artists.

In the decades that followed Lawrence received national acclaim for his powerful paintings about the lives of legendary black historical figures, including eighteenth-century Haitian general and liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture and American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Major retrospectives of his works were mounted in museums nationwide, among them New York’s Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Seattle Art Museum in Washington. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, firmly securing his place as America’s preeminent black artist.

Of Lawrence’s significance, art reviewer John Russell wrote in the New York Times: “Lawrence is one of the great American storytellers—or, as might be better said, one of the great tellers of the American story. One by one, key figures in the black American experience—Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, [American abolitionist] John Brown, Harriet Tubman—are presented not in single images but in sequences that have a cumulative effect… Jacob Lawrence’s is not an art of protest, or of propaganda. It is history, with all that this implies… [and] the work of a poet, a man of fire and daring.”

Lawrence has attributed his success to the black experience that is his heritage. From his youth, Lawrence has faithfully chronicled that experience—particularly the struggle of black Americans to obtain freedom and justice. As an adult, he extended this theme to include all human effort towards liberty. His paintbrush has captured everything from slave revolts and ghetto life to the devastation of war and attempts by blacks and whites to rebuild America. Yet each painting reveals his sense of humor as well as his pain and offers hope for the human condition.

In 1971, Lawrence accepted a tenured position as a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught until he retired in 1986. In addition to teaching, he spent much of the rest of his life painting commissions, producing limited-edition prints to help fund nonprofits like 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.

Lawrence married Gwendolyn Knight, a sculptor and painter, in 1941. She actively supported his work, providing both assistance and criticism, and helped him compose captions for many of his series.

Lawrence painted until a few weeks before he died, on June 9, 2000.


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