Self-portrait, 1977; This is typical in terms of color and style in its flattened and abstracted treatment of realistic subject matter
September 7, 1917|
Atlantic City, New Jersey
|Died||June 9, 2000
Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) was an American painter; he was married to a fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. 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 is among the best-known 20th-century African-American painters, a distinction shared with Romare Bearden. Lawrence was only in his twenties when his Migration Series made him nationally famous. A part of this series was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine. The series depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. The collection has been split into two parts for public viewing.
Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and died in 2000 in Seattle, Washington. He was thirteen when he moved with his sister and brother to New York City. 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. Although much of his work copied his mother's carpets, an art teacher there noted great potential in Lawrence.
After dropping out of school at sixteen, Lawrence worked in a laundry and a printing plant. More importantly, he attended classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by the African-American artist Charles Alston. Alston urged him to also attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage was able to secure Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration. In addition to getting paid, he was able to study and work with such notable Harlem Renaissance artists as Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn in the Alston-Bannarn workshop.
Lawrence married the painter Gwendolyn Knight, who had also been a student of Savage's, on July 24, 1941. They remained married until his death in 2000. In October 1943 (during the Second World War), he enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and served with the first racially integrated crew on the USCGC Sea Cloud, under Carlton Skinner. He was able to paint and sketch while in the Coast Guard.
In 1970 Lawrence settled in Seattle and became an art professor at the University of Washington. Some of his works are now displayed there in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering and in Meany Hall for the Performing Arts. The piece in the main lobby of Meany Hall, entitled "Theatre," was commissioned by the University for the hall in 1985.
Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans. Lawrence's work often portrayed important periods in African-American history. The artist was twenty-one years old when his series of paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture 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 Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series of pieces about the abolitionist John Brown. Lawrence was only twenty-three when he completed the sixty-panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro, now called The Migration Series. The series, a moving portrayal of the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the North after World War I and their struggle to adjust to Northern cities, was shown in New York, and brought him national recognition. In the 1940s Lawrence was given his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and became the most celebrated African-American painter in the country.
Shortly after moving to Washington State, Lawrence did a series of five paintings on the westward journey of African-American pioneer George Washington Bush. These paintings are now in the collection of the State of Washington History Museum.
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. His last public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.
Lawrence was honored as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian when the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1970 for his outstanding achievements. In 1974, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a major retrospective of his work, and, in 1983, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. In 1998 he received Washington State's highest honor, The Washington Medal of Merit. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990.
His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art. In May 2007, the White House Historical Association (via the White House Acquisition Trust) purchased Lawrence's The Builders (1947) for $2.5 million at auction. The painting now hangs in the White House Green Room.
When Lawrence died on June 9, 2000, the New York Times called him "One of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience." His wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, died several years later in 2005. Before Lawrence died, the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation was formally established. Today, it serves as both Jacob Lawrence's and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence's official Estates, and maintains a searchable archive of nearly 1,000 images of their work. The U.S. copyright representative for the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.
The Seattle Art Museum offers the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, a $10,000 award to "individuals whose original work reflects the Lawrences' concern artistic excellence, education, mentorship and scholarship within the cultural contexts and value systems that informed their work and the work of other artists of color."
- Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, excerpted online at Jacob Lawrence, Artchive.com.
- Jacob Lawrence, USCG biography
- www.sbctc.edu. "Module 1: Introduction and Definitions". Saylor.org. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
- Program for "Making a Life | Creating a World", Northwest African American Museum, 2008.
- Aesop’s Fables (illustrated by Jacob Lawrence), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997. ISBN 0-295-97641-1
- Exhibition: Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables, April 10 - June 20, 1999, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
- "New York in Transit, Jacob Lawrence (2001)", NYC Subway Organization
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter L". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
- Jacqueline Trescott, "Green Room Makeover Incorporates a Colorful Past", Washington Post, September 20, 2007. Accessed 29 December 2007.
- Holland Cotter, "Jacob Lawrence Is Dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of Black Americans", New York Times, June 10, 2000.
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Gwendolyn Knight, 91, Artist Who Blossomed Late in Life, Is Dead", New York Times, February 27, 2005.
- The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation website
- The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation Website's Searchable Archive
- Most frequently requested artists list of the Artists Rights Society
- Seattle Art Museum, About the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, 2009.
- Jacob Lawrence on the site of the Computer Science Department, University of Washington.
- About Meany Hall on the site of the University of Washington, including photo of Jacob Lawrence's "Theatre".
- Jacob Lawrence on the site of the Queens Museum of Art; includes reproductions of several prints from the John Brown series.
- Miles, J. H., Davis, J. J., Ferguson-Roberts, S. E., and Giles, R. G. (2001). Almanac of African American Heritage. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press.
- Potter, J. (2002). African American Firsts. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
- Remembering Jacob Lawrence (2000). http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/remember/jan-june00/lawrence_6-13.html.
- Bearden, Romare and Henderson, Harry. A History of African-American Artists (From 1792 to the Present), pp. 293–314, Pantheon Books (Random House), 1993, ISBN 0-394-57016-2
- The Phillips Collection's The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation website
- Interactive website about Jacob Lawrence's life and work.
- Columbus Museum of Art Web page about Lawrence's Interior Scene (click on picture for larger image)
- Washington's State Art Collection: The Legend of John Brown.
- The Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Jacob Lawrence And Gwendolyn Knight Papers Online.
- Jacob Lawrence's permanent artwork at Times Square-42nd Street, commissioned by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts for Transit.
- Lawrence's U.S. Copyright Representatives Artists Rights Society.
- Seattle Art Museum, Jacob Lawrence retrospective exhibition, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, February 6–May 4, 2003.