Jacob Lawrence (1917- 2000) grew up in Harlem toward the end of the Harlem Renaissance. Despite the depression, he found inspiration and vitality among the black artists, poets, and writers in the community. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop and joined the 306 studio, a collective of African American artists who worked and socialized together. That is where he met Gwendolyn Knight who he later married. Jacob Lawrence was primarily self-educated and spent hours in the library researching remarkable black figures to immortalize in his paintings. He was the first African American artist to be represented by a New York gallery.
Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite American painters. His paintings document American history. At the age of 23, his Migration Series documenting the migration of African-Americans from the segregated south to the urban north caught the attention of major galleries. His series of paintings include: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1937, (forty one panels), The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1938, (forty panels), The Life of Harriet Tubman, 1939, (thirty one panels), The Migration of the Negro,1940–41, (sixty panels), The Life of John Brown, 1941, (twenty two panels), Harlem, 1942, (thirty panels), War, 1946 47, (fourteen panels), The South, 1947, (ten panels), Hospital, 1949–50, (eleven panels), Struggle ?History of the American People, 1953–55, (thirty panels completed, sixty projected).
The three panels I have chosen as illustrations here give the since of leaving bondage in the south, risking a long an dangerous journey, and finally being able to have access to education.
Lawrence would envision the entire series before painting and is said to have painted one color at a time a cross all panels to add even more cohesion to the series. He is the most widely acclaimed African American artist of the 20th century. He taught at several universities and received numerous accolades and awards. In 1941, for example, he became the first African American artist to have work featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. In 1990, he received the U.S. National Medal of Arts.
Jacob Lawrence devoted his life to documenting black history, and in doing so because a very important voice, through his art in black history.