Jacob Lawrence (born 1917) was an African-American painter whose works depict his passionate concern for the plight of his people.
Born in Atlantic City, N. J., on Sept. 7, 1917, Jacob Lawrence was reared in Harlem in New York City, which provided the background for many of his works. He studied at the Uptopia Neighborhood House, attended a special class at the West 135th Street Library, and later studied at the Harlem Workshop.
During the Depression, Lawrence was accepted on a Federal Arts Project (WPA). He credited this valuable opportunity to the influence of the African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. During this period, he met many artists of varying backgrounds who offered him vital encouragement. Several years later, he received the prestigious Rosenwald grant-in-aid, which made it possible for him to acquire his first studio. With his colleagues—Romare Bearden, the painter, and writers William Attaway and Claude McKay— Lawrence established his studio in a building on West 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. By this time he had met another young artist, Gwen Knight, and they were married shortly before World War II.
The advent of Pearl Harbor and the opening of Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York City occurred the same week. Halpert's gallery was important because it featured the first comprehensive show by African-American artists ever presented in an "Establishment" showcase. Lawrence's paintings were received with great enthusiasm. As a result, Halpert invited Lawrence to join her "stable" of artists.
Lawrence also had notable success as a teacher. He was an instructor at the Art Students League in New York City and taught at various times at Brandeis University, Black Mountain College, the Skohegan School in Maine, and the University of California, among others. In 1970 Lawrence became professor and coordinator of the arts at Pratt Institute in New York City. He also traveled widely, including Africa in his journeys.
As a narrative painter, Lawrence did not confine his work to a single picture. Instead, he often required 20 or 30 panels to complete his concept. For example, "The Migration of the Negro" series (1940-1941) comprised 60 paintings. In a most graphic way the series tells of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the 1920s and 1930s. His other notable series concerned the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—all but one African-American historical figures.
Lawrence's works are in the collections of several major American museums as well as numerous private collections. He received many honors, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant in 1953 and the distinguished Spingarn Medal awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1970. The citation of this award paid tribute to "the compelling power of his work, which has opened to the world beyond these shores a window on the Negro's condition in the United States."
Lawrence was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His book Harriet and the Promised Land (1968) examines Harriet Tubman's abolitionist work.
Having passed into his eighth decade, Lawrence continues to create his powerful work. His art is, in fact, enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Recent showings of Lawrence's paintings in Chicago and Washington D.C. have drawn praise from the press, not the least of which was a statement from Time magazine, which summed up his works as "arguably still the best treatment of [the] black-American historical experience by a black artist."
Further Reading on Jacob Lawrence
Henri Ghent, Eight Afro-American Artists (1971), is a catalog of an exhibition held at the Rath Museum, Switzerland. Aline B. Saarinen, Jacob Lawrence (1960), is a catalog of a retrospective exhibition circulated by the American Federation of Arts. See also Cedric Dover, American Negro Art (1960), and James A. Porter, Modern Negro Art (1969). Lawrence is discussed in several background works: Sheldon Cheney, Story of Modern Art (1941; rev. ed. 1958), and Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900: A Critical History (1967).
Additional Biography Sources
Wheat, Ellen, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, University of Washington Press, 1986.
Art in America, February, 1988.
Time, November 22, 1993.