September 7, 1917–June 9, 2000
Occupation: Painter, Printmaker, Muralist
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; elected into National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1965; Spingarn Medal, 1971, NAACP; inducted into American Academy of Arts and Letters 1983; National Medal of Arts, 1990. Lawrence has also received more than two dozen honorary degrees.
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. Lawrence is also known as an illustrator of books for adults and children.
In the early part of the twentieth century, huge numbers of African Americans migrated from the rural South to the cities of the North. They hoped to find jobs in growing industries, particularly on the automobile assembly lines of Detroit, Michigan. Lawrence's parents, Jacob Armstead Lawrence and Rose Lee, were among these migrants. They met and married in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The oldest of their three children, Jacob, was born there on September 7, 1917. During Lawrence's childhood, his family was forced to relocate many times as his parents looked for work. Steady jobs were hard to find, especially for African Americans. Racial prejudice prevented them from pursuing certain jobs or professions. These many moves had a disruptive effect on Lawrence, who was a quiet and sensitive boy; he found it difficult to constantly adjust to new neighborhoods and schools.
The hardest adjustment of all came when he was thirteen. It was then that he went to live with his mother in Harlem, the mostly African American section of New York City. It was a crowded, teeming place, and the public school Lawrence attended was considered among the roughest in the area. But Harlem in the 1930s was also the center of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Many African American artists, writers, musicians, and scholars lived there. It was a time of great creativity and excitement.
To keep her son out of trouble, Rose Lawrence enrolled him in an after–school arts and crafts program at a local community center. It was taught by a young African American artist named Charles Alston. Alston liked the serious, quiet Lawrence and made sure he had lots of materials for his efforts: soap to carve, reeds to make baskets, crayons and pencils for drawing, wood for construction. "I decided then that I wanted to be an artist," Lawrence later wrote. He found that drawing geometric designs in bright colors satisfied him greatly. He soon moved on to elaborate patterns and developed his own method of painting in which particular shapes were rendered in corresponding colors, one at a time; he would paint all the triangles in red, and then do all the squares in yellow, and so on. Lawrence continued in this mode through much of his career. This notable consistency of color is apparent in the artist's later series of story panels.
Alston recognized that the young Lawrence was a significant talent. He remarked in later years that Lawrence never asked like the other children, "What should I do next?" He always had a project in mind and simply needed information to help him complete it. Alston told many of his artist friends about this gifted young man. They frequently visited the class to see his work and encourage him. Lawrence quickly became known among the artistic circles of Harlem.
Lawrence got many of his ideas from the books and magazines he found at the center where the classes were held. He once came across an article about a famous artist who made papier–mâché masks. Lawrence had Alston show him how to mix papier–mâché, and he went on to create many colorful, life–size masks. He also used cardboard boxes to fashion three–sided scenes depicting locales in Harlem — stores, barbershops, houses, and newsstands. These were like miniature theater sets, though Lawrence had never been to the theater.
During the time he worked with Alston, Lawrence found little at school to interest him. After two years of high school he dropped out, despite his mother's protests. This was during the Great Depression, and jobs were extremely scarce. Lawrence was able to earn only meager funds by selling old bottles and running errands. He continued to paint whenever he could, but times were hard. Then, in 1936, Lawrence was accepted into the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government program designed to get young men out of the cities to work on projects such as planting trees and building roads and dams. Lawrence's CCC service taught him many new skills and made him think that perhaps painting should be only a hobby.
He returned to New York but still could find no work besides odd jobs. He again began attending art classes at various community centers, including one offered by the acclaimed sculptor Augusta Savage. Like Alston, Savage recognized Lawrence's talent and took him under her wing. She soon realized that Lawrence was having difficulty earning money. She took him to a government office to enroll him in a project that helped support artists. But Lawrence was not eligible because he was only twenty years old and not the required twenty–one. Lawrence was extremely disappointed and continued looking for other work. Savage did not give up, however. She waited a year and on Lawrence's twenty–first birthday, she took him back to the government office to sign him up. He was accepted and offered $25 a week, a comfortable living in those days. He was free to do what he wanted as long as he produced two paintings every six weeks. Lawrence later stated, "If Augusta Savage hadn't insisted on getting me on the project, I would never have become an artist. It was a real turning point for me."
For about a year and a half, Lawrence was able to take classes, hone his painting skills, and put concerns about money out of his mind. Through the funding project he met many other artists and writers. They gathered in each other's studios to exchange ideas about art, literature, and life in general. Lawrence's paintings from this period are mostly scenes of Harlem, among them Clinic and Bar 'N Grill. 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.
During these years Lawrence regularly attended a discussion group focusing on African and African American history held at the local public library. It was led by a prominent scholar, Charles Seifert. Seifert applauded Lawrence's interest and encouraged him to study American history in depth, especially the role of African Americans. The artist had never learned this history in school. Now he uncovered many critical events and heroes forgotten by the public school system. These discoveries provided him with subjects for many of his works.
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.
This series and later ones have been compared to movie stills or slides that narrate a story as the viewer progresses through them. Lawrence continued in this method, portraying the lives of several African American heroes, including Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad of antislavery forces who smuggled slaves to the North; writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and John Brown, a white abolitionist who led a slave revolt in Virginia. In all of these works, he used his formidable artistic skills to conjure the struggle for freedom and justice, forcefully representing the strength of character of his subjects.
Lawrence was only twenty–two when he completed the Toussaint L'Ouverture series in 1938. It received much attention for its unusual subject matter and praise for its artistry. Two acquaintances of Lawrence prominent in the art world arranged for the panels to be included in an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This was the first major museum to feature an exhibition by African American artists. An entire room was devoted to Lawrence's panels. The exhibition won him great recognition and several fellowships.
Lawrence was encouraged by his success to begin work on still another series. This one told the story of the many African Americans who migrated to the cities of the North around World War I. The sixty panels were created from accounts he gathered from family members, his own childhood experiences, and exhaustive research. Painted in Lawrence's bold, geometric style, with many vivid colors, they depict the hard life of the migrants, but also their courage and dignity. In 1992 Lawrence published a book, The Great Migration, using many panels from the series. In the introduction he wrote, "Uprooting yourself from one way of life to make your way in another involves conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle comes a kind of power, and even beauty. I tried to convey this in the rhythm of the pictures, and in the repetition of certain images." The Migration series was another triumph.
About this time Lawrence married a young painter he had met through Savage named Gwendolyn Knight. She became indispensable to his career, frequently helping him prepare his panels. But more important, Knight offered unflagging support when Lawrence encountered various artistic and emotional obstacles in later years.
Lawrence served in the Coast Guard during World War II, from 1943 to 1945. He was a steward's mate, the only rating available to African Americans because the military was segregated by race in those days. Lawrence was lucky to be selected for the Coast Guard's first racially integrated crew. The crew commander knew of his artistic career and secured Lawrence a position as a public relations officer. He was assigned to paint a record of life in the Coast Guard. The troopship he served on sailed to Italy, Egypt, and India. Lawrence's Coast Guard paintings were shown at several museums after the war.
Lawrence's reputation grew quickly in the postwar years. He was called "America's number one black painter." But this phrase troubled him because it seemed to suggest two different criteria of value, one for black artists and a different one for "real" artists. During this time Lawrence also found it difficult locating new subjects for his paintings. Trends in art were changing, too. Abstract art, that which focused on the emotional rather than the physical realm, was beginning to dominate the art world.
These forces combined to create doubt in Lawrence's mind about his talents and abilities; he began to question his success and wonder if it were not just luck that got him where he was. His anxiety became so severe that in 1949 he entered a hospital to seek treatment. Lawrence felt that his two years there greatly helped him reconcile his feelings and increase his understanding of his place in the world. His work of the 1950s reflects this new peace. Perhaps the most important series from these years is Struggle: From the History of the American People. These thirty paintings display key events in U.S. history, emphasizing the role of ordinary people of all races and heritages.
Despite Lawrence's doubts, the art world continued to honor him. In 1953 he was the first African American artist to receive a large grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the first elected a member of the Institute in 1965. In 1983 he was only the second African American elected to the fifty–member American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received the National Medal of Arts from President George H. W. Bush in 1990. These are just a few of the many awards Lawrence has received.
Since the 1960s Lawrence has spent much of his time teaching. He was a professor of art at the University of Washington in Seattle for many years. Most recently he has dedicated his talents to book illustration. His panels from the Harriet Tubman series were published in a volume called Harriet and the Promised Land in 1967. And in 1970 he lent his hand to an edition of Aesop's Fables (a new edition of this work appeared in 1998). In addition to the publication of his book The Great Migration, the early 1990s saw his panels about abolitionist John Brown published in John Brown: One Man against Slavery. In all of these endeavors, Lawrence has labored to reveal the commitment to freedom and justice of people struggling for life's most basic needs and in so doing, miraculously maintaining their humanity and a sense of hope.
Lawrence died in his sleep on June 9, 2000, in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 82.
Biography Resource Center. Gale.