Jacob Lawrence

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Jacob Lawrence
Lawrence Jacob Self-Portrait 1977.jpg
Self-portrait, 1977; This is typical in terms of color and style in its flattened and abstracted treatment of realistic subject matter
Born (1917-09-07)September 7, 1917
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died June 9, 2000(2000-06-09) (aged 82)
Seattle, Washington
Nationality American
Known for Painting

Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) was an African-American painter known for his portrayal of African-American life. 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.[1]

Lawrence is among the best-known 20th-century African-American painters. He was 23 years old when he gained national recognition with his 60-panel Migration Series,[2] painted on cardboard. The series depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A part of this series was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine. The collection is now held by two museums. Lawrence's works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.


Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was thirteen when his family, including his sister and brother, moved to New York City. Lawrence was introduced to art shortly after that, when their 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.

After dropping out of school at sixteen, Lawrence worked in a laundry and a printing plant. He continued with art, attending classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by the noted African-American artist Charles Alston. Alston urged him to attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage secured Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration, established during the Great Depression by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lawrence continued his studies as well, working with Alston and Henry Bannarn, another Harlem Renaissance artist, in the Alston-Bannarn workshop.

On July 24, 1941, Lawrence married the painter Gwendolyn Knight, also a student of Savage. They were married until his death in 2000.

In October 1943 (during the Second World War), Lawrence enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and served with the first racially integrated crew on the USCGC Sea Cloud, under Carlton Skinner.[3] He continued to paint and sketch while in the Coast Guard.

After years in New York, in 1970 Lawrence and Knight moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he had been invited to be an art professor at the University of Washington. They settled in Seattle. Some of his works are displayed in the university's Meany Hall for the Performing Arts and in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering. Lawrence's painting, Theatre, installed in the main lobby of Meany Hall, was commissioned by the University in 1985 for that space.


Lawrence teaching school children at the Abraham Lincoln School.

Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on exploring the history and struggles of African Americans. He often portrayed important periods in African-American history. The artist 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 Frederick 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 I, and showed their adjusting to Northern cities. It was exhibited in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, and brought him national recognition.[4] 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.

The "hard, bright, brittle" aspects of Harlem during the Great Depression inspired Lawrence as much as the colors, shapes and patterns inside the residents' homes. "Even in my mother's home," Lawrence told historian Paul Karlstrom, "people of my mother's generation would decorate their homes in all sorts of color... so you'd think in terms of Matisse."[5]

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.[6]

Lawrence illustrated an adaptation of Aesop's Fables for the University of Washington Press in 1997.[7][8]

Lawrence taught at several universities. He continued to paint until a few weeks before 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.[9]


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, the National Gallery of Art[12] 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 hangs in the White House Green Room.[13]

When Lawrence died on June 9, 2000, the New York Times described him as "One of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience."[14] His wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, died several years later in 2005.[15] Jacob Lawrence made 319 artworks in his life. Before he died, he and his wife set up the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation. It serves as the official Estates of both artists.[16] It maintains a searchable archive of nearly 1,000 images of their work.[17] The U.S. copyright representative for the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.[18]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, excerpted online at Jacob Lawrence, Artchive.com.
  2. ^ Migration Series, Phillips Collection
  3. ^ Jacob Lawrence, USCG biography
  4. ^ www.sbctc.edu. "Module 1: Introduction and Definitions" (PDF). Saylor.org. Retrieved 2 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945 1. New York, NY: The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. 2003. ISBN 0-942949-24-2. 
  6. ^ Program for Making a Life | Creating a World, Northwest African American Museum, 2008.
  7. ^ Aesop’s Fables (illustrated by Jacob Lawrence), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997. ISBN 0-295-97641-1
  8. ^ Exhibition: Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables, April 10 - June 20, 1999, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
  9. ^ "New York in Transit, Jacob Lawrence (2001)", NYC Subway Organization
  10. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter L" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  12. ^ "Tour: African American Artists: Collection Highlights". https://www.nga.gov. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Retrieved 3 April 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  13. ^ Jacqueline Trescott, "Green Room Makeover Incorporates a Colorful Past", Washington Post, September 20, 2007. Accessed 29 December 2007.
  14. ^ Holland Cotter, "Jacob Lawrence Is Dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of Black Americans", New York Times, June 10, 2000.
  15. ^ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Gwendolyn Knight, 91, Artist Who Blossomed Late in Life, Is Dead", New York Times, February 27, 2005.
  16. ^ The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation website
  17. ^ The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation Website's Searchable Archive
  18. ^ Most frequently requested artists, Artists Rights Society
  19. ^ Seattle Art Museum, About the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, 2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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
  • 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.

External links[edit]