Jacob Lawrence (by jane davila)

Jacob Lawrence: African-American Harlem Renaissance Painter, 1917-2000

While looking for something else on the ‘net I came across an artist with whom I was completely unfamiliar. I find his graphic style very appealing and I can easily see it translated into fiber. The story-telling aspect of his work is also intriguing, it dances on the thin line between fine art and illustration.

Jacob Lawrence, Ironing
Jacob Lawrence, Ironing

“Jacob Lawrence, a figurative painter with an unequaled gift for storytelling, is renowned for visual dramatizations of the black American experience. “- Wadsworth Atheneum

Jacob Lawrence, Story Painter
Jacob Lawrence, Story Painter

Jacob Lawrence has become one of the most acclaimed African American artists of the twentieth century. His work is characterized by small scale tempera and gouache paintings of genre scenes of African Americans and their sociopolitical struggles. His work is often organized through a series, typically accompanied with a simple text which serves as a narrative, based on the artist’s careful research. Lawrence has been classified as a social realist and the style of his work is associated with Cubism.

Jacob Lawrence, Barber
Jacob Lawrence, Barber

During his early years in Harlem, Lawrence came into contact with such noteworthy individuals as Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, Henry Bannarn, Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Bennett, Bob Blackburn, Aaron Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Ronald Joseph, Gwendolyn Knight (who became the artist’s wife), Norman Lewis, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, and Arthur Schomburg.

(As an aside, I had the great fortune to study briefly in Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop in lower Manhattan in 1983 — Bob was another fascinating artist. Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Will Arnett and my husband also all studied here during its 50-year history.)

Jacob Lawrence, The Federalist Papers

Lawrence was influenced by Asian wood block prints, and the work of Breughel, Daumier, William Edmonson, Giotto, Goya, William Gropper, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros due to the importance these artists placed on documenting human emotion through historical, social, and cultural references. Lawrence was also keenly aware of the work of Arthur Dove, Georgio de Chirico, and Charles Sheeler who represented the growing American Modernist movement and its European counterpart.

Jacob Lawrence, Graduation
Jacob Lawrence, Graduation

One of the things I find so interesting about Jacob Lawrence’s work is the fact that he worked in series, often as a narrative, telling a story, with each painting or print related to the ones before and after it. This strikes me as away of working I’d like to explore, sort of an uber series. Many of his series had more than 20 pieces in them (the John Brown series for example) and in the case of the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, there are 41 pieces.

Jacob Lawrence, Life of John Brown
Jacob Lawrence, Life of John Brown

The series is notable for the language it does not use. Lawrence was not a propagandist. He eschewed the caricatural apparatus of Popular Front Social Realism, then at its high tide in America. Considering the violence and pathos of so much of his subject matter – prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots, labor camps – his images are restrained, and all the more piercing for their lack of bombast. When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled lump of a grieving woman. — Artchive

Jacob Lawrence, Legend of John Brown
Jacob Lawrence, Legend of John Brown

Lawrence was the first African American to have his work displayed in a major New York gallery and to be included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, both 1941.

Jacob Lawrence was one of the first African American artists to rise to prominence in the mainstream American art world. He was encouraged by teachers and fellow artists during his teenage years to study both art and African American history. He combined these interests to produce works unique in both their subject and style. Many of these comprise series of panels that join together to create a narrative.

He was able to keenly illustrate how hard it was to survive during the Depression years. Through color, pattern, and exaggerated form, he expressed weariness and despair.

Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint
Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint

Lawrence was particularly drawn to the life story of Francis Dominique Toussaint, known as Toussaint L’Ouverture, the military leader of eighteenth-century Haiti, who overthrew the slave system and liberated the Caribbean island nation from French domination. Lawrence read everything he could about Toussaint and decided to paint a record of his achievements. But one painting was not enough. Lawrence ultimately unveiled a series of forty-one panels, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of Haiti and then outlining Toussaint’s childhood, battles, and death in a French prison. The settings of the scenes employed a great measure of realism, but Lawrence used intense color and exaggeration to express the emotional power of this hero.

jacob Lawrence, Deception
Jacob Lawrence, Deception

This series and later ones have been compared to movie stills or slides that narrate a story as the viewer progresses through them — Thomson Gale free resources

Jacob Lawrence, Tombstones
Jacob Lawrence, Tombstones, Migration Series

Other series followed on the lives of the abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. The Migration of the Negro, one of his best known series, was completed in 1941. The most widely acclaimed African American artist of this century, Lawrence continued to paint until his death in 2000. — PBS.org

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6 Responses to “Jacob Lawrence (by jane davila)”


  1. 1 June May 11, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Pam and Jane,

    I just did an A&P post about the canvas “space” — working within the spaces we are given — or cropping or adding to them. Painters have to face the flatness and size limitations of the canvas. Whatever its size, you can’t add a block or seam another strip to fit in extra ideas. Lawrence’s desire to show things from multiple viewpoints is one of the classic strategies (classic since Cubism, anyway) to pull in materials to his flat space. It would work with quilting, but he would have had to plan in advance, which we don’t necessarily have to do.

    Frank Stella’s “Working Space” is still the best book on the subject that I know. I am re-reading it after 7 or 8 years of absence, and am learning more and more in doing so.

  2. 2 PaMdora May 11, 2007 at 5:36 am

    I have long admired Jacob Lawrence’s work. Whenever I get an oppotunity to study one of his paintings in person, I can spend a long time in front of it. What I like to study is his composition — in the examples that Jane has provided, the last one hints most at his complex compostions with lots of people and activity orchestrated into a narrative story.

    I saw “Brown Angel” in Houston Museum of Fine Arts last year — a sort of surrelistic view of a bar, because the imaginary perspective allows you to look down on people and workers at a bar, then back at people in side rooms, then up to some more activity in little windows above. The more you look, the more you see — there’s even a little spider on the wall.

  3. 3 Jane Davila May 10, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    That would be Will Barnet, not Will Arnett. I must have been tired when I wrote that!

    http://www.artcritical.com/DavidCohen/SUN29.htm

    Look at the link above for some of Barnet’s work.

    Also, in researching Lawrence, I discovered that he was considered a child prodigy and was one of the WPA artists during the Depression which allowed him to earn his living from his art, with few limitations. Now, why don’t we have a program like this anymore??

    Here is a link to an article about Lawrence’s Migration Series:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_n3_v84/ai_18119058/pg_1

  4. 4 Jeanne Marklin May 10, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    I believe that the original Cosby show had Jacob Lawrence paintings
    in the house. I think that one of the episodes included a discussion of Jacob Lawrences’ Migration series. I bet the Cosby’s own some of
    his work too.
    The colors and movement are so dramatic and draw you right in.

  5. 5 Rhoda May 10, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Fantastic art. His use of minimal colors is outstanding.

  6. 6 Segway May 9, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Will Arnett, as in the actor? He studied printmaking?

    Come on over and tell us about it at the Will Arnett Research Project at http://blutharnett.blogspot.com


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