Jacob Lawrence is without a doubt one of the most well-known African American painters of the twentieth century. He said of his work, “I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene.” His paintings remain eye catching today because Lawrence was among the first to document the history of African Americans through artworks that were highly influential and widely-viewed. Considering himself both an artist and educator, Lawrence used his narrative style to tell stories about black history.
When Lawrence was seven years old his family moved to Harlem, New York.Arriving in Harlem during its great Renaissance allowed Lawrence to experience the vibrancy of African American intellectual, cultural, and artistic life. Lawrence’s exposure to the Harlem Renaissance is directly reflected in his work through shapes and colors. Lawrence referred to his style as “dynamic cubism”, though the primary influence was not so much French art, but instead the movement and colors of Harlem.
At the age of twenty-one, Lawrence became well known for his “Toussaint L’Ouverture Series” (1937). This was a forty-one painting collection that depicted the successful Haitian slave rebellion. Other influential works were series of paintings about the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Lawrence is also well-known for his sixty painting “Migration Series.” This series traced the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North after World War I. Lawrence said of this series, “If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers.”
Throughout Lawrence’s career he was honored for his outstanding achievements. In 1970 the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal for his accomplishments as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian. In 1974, a major retrospective of Lawrence’s work was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He was also awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990. Today, Lawrence’s works are part of permanent collections throughout the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the White House Historical Association.
Lawrence taught at several schools, and continued to paint until a few weeks before his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. After Lawrence’s death, the New York Times spoke of him as, “among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African American experience.” In 2000, the New York Times also called Lawrence, “one of America’s leading modern figurative painters.” Although superb reviews speak volumes of Lawrence’s work, I urge readers to spend time viewing his collection of paintings because they truly do speak for themselves.
Posted on August 2nd, 2011 by Cori Sisler