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Jacob Lawrence

The paintings of Jacob Lawrence tell stories of enslavement and freedom, of human migration and renaissance, of struggle and triumph. The life and work of Jacob Lawrence is an excellent starting point for discussions about American history.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, Jacob Lawrence spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania. After his parents separated in 1924, his mother moved to New York where she hoped to find better work. Lawrence and his brother and sister stayed behind and spent several years in foster homes. When Lawrence was 13 years old, he and his siblings were able to rejoin their mother in New York, where Lawrence was immediately taken with the exciting sights and sounds of Harlem.

He began taking after-school art lessons in addition to balancing school with work as a delivery boy to help support his mother’s modest income as a domestic. Eventually the struggle to attend school, make art, and help support his family became too great and Lawrence dropped out of school. By the mid-1930s, he regularly participated in community art programs, and in 1937, won a two-year scholarship to the American Artists School.

The pictures Lawrence painted were a reflection of the black experience—he painted scenes from Harlem, but also scenes from black history. He eventually became best known for his painting series—small works that are meant to be viewed collectively. These paintings tell a story like a mural, but have the advantage of being portable. After researching his subjects extensively at the New York Public Library, Lawrence did series on historical figures such as Frederick Douglas, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. In 1938, Augusta Savage, a sculptor in Harlem helped Lawrence get a job through the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a federal government agency that was set up to give artists work during the depression. Artists were to produce at least two works of art every six weeks.

At the age of nineteen, Lawrence produced his first series, 41 paintings based on the life of Haitian hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture. This led to his first big break when, in 1939, the Baltimore Museum of Art devoted an entire room to the series. In 1940, Lawrence won a Rosenwald fellowship, which enabled him to rent a studio where he completed his most famous series, The Migration of the Negro. Consisting of sixty paintings, the series was based on the migration of southern African-Americans to northern cities. He was assisted in this effort by fellow artist, Gwendolyn Knight, whom he married in 1941. This same year, he held his first one-man exhibition. A critical and financial success, it featured the Migration series.

Lawrence’s artistic career was interrupted when he joined U.S. Coast Guard in 1941, where he served until 1945. He went on to teach at various art schools, including a twelve year stint at the University of Washington in Seattle. During a career that spanned five decades, Lawrence received many scholarships and awards, and traveled extensively in Africa.

Always concerned with issues such as everyday reality, freedom, and justice, many of Lawrence’s paintings state social concerns in terms of the colors and forms of his Harlem neighborhood. Lawrence did not consider his work to be “protest” art, but felt it dealt with the social scene of America. His work was like no one else’s and remains unique today. One of the best known of a number of black artists who used art to assert their African-American heritage, Jacob Lawrence died in 2000 at the age of 82.



Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

What is it that people express through the artworks they make?

• Do they express their feelings? Their ideas? Their beliefs? Always or

• How is it possible that an artwork can show us the feelings, ideas, or
beliefs of an artist?

• Do makers have to feel something in order to express feelings in the
artworks they make?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.