Jacob Lawrence(September 7, 1917) is among the best-known 20th-century African-American painters.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey but raised in New York City's Harlem, Jacob Lawrence was most widely acclaimed for producing narrative collections that brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism," though by his own account the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem.
Lawrence was introduced to art when his mother enrolled him in classes at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem, in an effort to keep him busy. The young Lawrence often drew patterns with crayons. In the beginning, he copied patterns of his mother's carpets; one of his art teachers noted great potential in Lawrence.
Throughout his career, Jacob Lawrence emphasized the crucial role that the black community of Harlem played in his development as a young man and as an artist. In his images of Harlem, Lawrence painted his vision of poverty, crime, racial tensions, and police brutality based on his experience of urban life around him. He also portrayed a vibrant, thriving community and the aspirations of its people. Harlem was a constant backdrop to many of Lawrence’s paintings. His themes included black working women, health concerns, leisure time, and the role of religion and spirituality in people's daily lives. In these works, Lawrence portrayed the community in bold colors, repeating patterns, and asymmetrical compositions. He also incorporated the rhythms, breaks, and changes of jazz music into his visual representations of the Harlem environment.
Lawrence concentrated on exploring the history and struggles of African Americans. He often portrayed important periods in African-American history. He was 21 years old when his series of paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the revolution of the slaves that eventually gained independence, was shown in an exhibit of African-American artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This impressive work was followed by a series of paintings of the lives of Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series of pieces about the abolitionist John Brown.
Lawrence was 23 when he completed the 60-panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro, now called the Migration Series. The series was a portrayal of the Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the rural South to the North after World War 1, and showed their adjusting to Northern cities. In the 1940s Lawrence was given his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and it brought him national recognition. He became the most celebrated African-American painter in the country, and a part of this series was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine. Last year the MoMA exhibited this series for the first time in 20 years.
Lawrence married Gwendolyn Knight, a sculptor and painter, in 1941. She actively supported his work, providing both assistance and criticism, and helped him compose captions for many of his series.
During World War II, Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard. He was assigned to be the Coast Guard artist aboard a troopship, documenting the experience of war around the world. He produced 48 paintings during this time, all of which have been lost. When his tour of duty ended, Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship and painted his War Series. Of this series my favorite painting in this series is The Letter. Though the image is minimal in design the message is so strong and poignant.
Lawrence grew depressed in 1949, he checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens, where he stayed for 11 months. He painted as an inpatient, and the work created during this time offered insight into the circumstances of mental illness and therapy, from the patients’ absorption in the occupational therapies of weaving and gardening to the spiritless of the depressed. His paintings differed significantly from his other work because it was the only work that depicts exclusively white subjects. It also has subdued colors and people who appear resigned or in agony. After leaving Hillside, Lawrence returned to the strengths of his earlier work.
As David Harrison said "Lawrence has taken us from the polite world of abstract painting to a much uglier place and returned us, effortlessly. That he crosses easily between these two concerns, seemingly miles apart, fits neatly within the boundary-crossing theme that Over the Line proposes. But when Jacob Lawrence was at his best, boundaries ceased to be the issue. He was able to absorb contradictions and inequities, history and myth, beauty and atrocity, humor and gravity. He took what he would from all of them and made something as complicated as his experience."
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lawrence spent much of his time painting commissions. Lawrence taught at several universities, including Pratt Institute (my Alma Mata). In 1970, Jacob settled in Seattle as a professor of art at the University of Washington. He continued to paint until his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. His last commissioned public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.