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
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
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
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.
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
• Do they express their feelings? Their ideas? Their beliefs?
• How is it possible that an artwork can show us the feelings,
beliefs of an artist?
• Do makers have to feel something in order to express feelings
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