Jacob Lawrence, born in 1917 contributed to a tremendous cultural upsurge called the Harlem Renaissance.  Harlem is associated in many people's minds with hardship and poverty. But, during the 1930's Harlem experienced this great artist who portrayed their inspirations and intellectual energy.  Lawrence relocated from Philadelphia with his mother, brother and sister.  The flowering of the Harlem Renaissance had passed, but there remained enough momentum to help turn this child of a poor family into one of the most distinguished American artists of his generation.  Throughout his long career as an artist, he worked to document and translate the African American experience to the rest of the world.

His childhood home was not a happy environment, but he had several places where he could take refuge: his local public library, the art workshop of Harlem, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Lawrence was schooled in many studios around Harlem when he was a young man.  He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop from 1932 until late in 1934 where he received encouragement from two famous black artists, Augusta Savage and Charles Alston.  At the age of twenty, he began to exhibit his work.  At the age of twenty-one, like many others, he was being supported by the W.P.A. Art Project, which was a government-sponsored program that helped artists get through the economic hardship of the Great Depression.  At the age of twenty-four, in 1941, he produced his series The Migration of the Negro, which was a series of sixty paintings.  He combined brilliant colors with basic patterns, textures, and shapes, and brought this cultural phenomenon to life.

In 1941, he was married to painter Gwendolyn Knight.  He also acquired his first dealer when Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery in New York featured him in his first major exhibition. It resulted in the purchase of his migration series by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, each purchased half of the series.

From the time of his first major exhibition, his career skyrocketed.  His paintings were always in constant demand and he was sought after to illustrate magazine covers, posters, and a variety of books.  He continued to influence the public through his teaching, starting first at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, then at the Pratt Institute, The Art Students League, and finally at the University of Washington.  In 1978, he was elected into the National Council on the Arts.

Early on in his career, Lawrence had established a style that would dominate his work throughout his career.  He drew on his own experiences and hardships of the poor people in the ghettos, the violence that African Americans moving from the south to the north experienced, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  Most of his art has a narrative content or "story", and the titles were often lengthy.  Even though Lawrence painted individual pictures, most of his artwork has been in series, such as The Migration Series, and Theater.

Lawrence's paintings have been called important instruments of social protest, but his images, however stark, are more about reporting what he was painting than it was about protesting the events of that time.  It is like he is saying to us, "This is what happened, this is the way it is".  What he was talking about was what was happening to black Americans and Lawrence did not seem to lose sight of himself as the poor young man growing up in Harlem.  As he has said, "My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life, if he has developed this philosophy he does not put paint on a canvas, he puts himself on a canvas".

Lawrence died on June 9, 2000 at the age of 82.


Source:  Gilbert, Rita, Living with Art, 2001

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