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Lawrence, Jacob (1917–2000) By Hill, Catrina

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM850-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 21 February 2020, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/lawrence-jacob-1917-2000

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Abstract

Jacob Lawrence was an artist and educator, as well as the first African American artist of the 20th century to achieve critical acclaim and sustained mainstream recognition. Lawrence’s work is typically described as a mix between synthetic cubism and social realism. It consists of narrative compositions with bold color and patterns, distorted proportions, tilted space, and abstract forms. Lawrence is best known for his series The Migration of the Negro (1940–1941). The narrative series is comprised of sixty panels accompanied by captions, depicting scenes of everyday life for working-class black communities before, during, and after migrating from the agrarian South to the large, industrial cities of the North between the Wars. The paintings were done in bright tempera on small board panels and are a blend of social realism and modernist abstraction. The series is owned jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lawrence also completed multi-panel works on historical figures including John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Harriet Tubman. He carefully researched the lives of the historical figures he depicted, spending many hours at the New York Public Library.

Jacob Lawrence was an artist and educator, as well as the first African American artist of the 20th century to achieve critical acclaim and sustained mainstream recognition. Lawrence’s work is typically described as a mix between synthetic cubism and social realism. It consists of narrative compositions with bold color and patterns, distorted proportions, tilted space, and abstract forms. Lawrence is best known for his series The Migration of the Negro (1940–1941). The narrative series is comprised of sixty panels accompanied by captions, depicting scenes of everyday life for working-class black communities before, during, and after migrating from the agrarian South to the large, industrial cities of the North between the Wars. The paintings were done in bright tempera on small board panels and are a blend of social realism and modernist abstraction. The series is owned jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lawrence also completed multi-panel works on historical figures including John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Harriet Tubman. He carefully researched the lives of the historical figures he depicted, spending many hours at the New York Public Library.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on 7 September 1917, Lawrence’s family moved to rural Pennsylvania and then Philadelphia before his parents separated. Lawrence and his siblings spent several years in foster homes before joining their mother in Harlem in 1930. His mother was a domestic servant and Lawrence worked throughout his youth to help support his family. As a child he studied art at the Utopia Settlement House in Philadelphia, and at the Work Project Administration’s Harlem Community Art Center he took classes with Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. Lawrence always described Savage, an African American sculptor who studied in Paris, as a major influence on his decision to become an artist. Lawrence was married to artist Gwendolyn Knight for 59 years. During World War II, he served in the United States Coast Guard and completed tours in Europe, the Near East, and India. He held teaching positions at Brandeis University near Boston, the Art Students League in New York, and the University of Washington at Seattle, from which he retired in 1986.

Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship, was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates from schools such as Harvard, Yale, New York University, Howard University, and Amherst College. His work has been the focus of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City. Jacob Lawrence died in his home June 9, 2000 at age 82.

Further Reading

  • Hills, Patricia and Jacob Lawrence (2009) Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Berkeley: California University Press.

  • Lawrence, Jacob, Elizabeth Turner and Lonnie G. Bunch (1993) Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, Washington, D.C.: Rappahannock Press; Phillips Collection.

  • Nesbett, Peter, Jacob Lawrence and Michelle DuBois (2000) Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Mural (1935–1999): a Catalogue Raisonné, Seattle: Washington University Press.

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Published

09/05/2016

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM850-1

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Citing this article:

Hill, Catrina. "Lawrence, Jacob (1917–2000)." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 21 Feb. 2020 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/lawrence-jacob-1917-2000. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM850-1

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