Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence 

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) was an African American painter who painted the history, heroes and the bold patterns of colors Africa has given the world.  Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey and died in 2000 in Seattle, Washington.  He studied at the Art Workshop, Harlem, under Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn. He also, studied at the Harlem Art Center and American Artists School from l937-39.  He was one of the youths encouraged by Augusta Savage who went on to become one of America’s most important painters.

Lawrence was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight..  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.

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.  According to author David Driskell, Jacob Lawrence has looked at history with the discerning eye of a sensitive critic.  He has recorded a visual record, which touches upon our national and ancestral interests.  It is obviously noticeable that his paintings contain some of the visual symbols associated with man’s protest against the intolerable conditions that often beset him, but they also present to us a segment of reality which ties our lives to history that is reflected in the immediate drama of everyday living.  This is the reason why his style in art cannot be crammed into the usual bag of modernisms.  Thus, he distinguishes himself as an artist who is highly sensitive to the conditions of life that face all mankind.

 Jacob Lawrence - Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

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 epic Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.  The collection has been split into two parts for public viewing.

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 notable Harlem Renaissance artists as Henry Bannarn in the Alston-Bannarn workshop.

 Jacob Lawrence - Theatre

Jacob Lawrence, Theatre

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.  His piece in the main lobby of Meany Hall entitled, "Theatre", was commissioned by the University in the hall in 1985. 

Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans.  His 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.

 Jacob Lawrence - Toussaint l Ouverture Series

Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L’Ouverture Series

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.  He illustrated an adaptation of Aesop's Fables for the University of Washington Press in 1997.  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 then 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.

Jacob Lawrence - New York in Transit 

Jacob Lawrence, New York in Transit

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 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 for 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.

 

Great African American artists brought to you by Paris-based black painter Ealy Mays

 

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Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

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