Jacob Lawrence, American (1917 - 2000)

Jacob Lawrence's work combines realism with abstract decorative design and deals primarily with the black experience in America. In narrative series of paintings, he has highlighted the lives of outstanding blacks and chronicled contemporary black history.

Lawrence paints in tempera on composition board, using highly-stylized figures, vivid primary colors and sharp contrasts. While still in his twenties, he was the first black artist to be honored with a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, and spent his infancy in Easton, Pennsylvania. When he was three, his mother took him to live in Harlem, then an active center for the arts.

The young Lawrence began studying art at an early age, first in after-school programs and later at the Harlem Art Workshop. For much of this time black artist Charles Alston was his mentor. In 1937, Lawrence received a scholarship to the American Artists School; the next year, when he turned 21, he was accepted as a painter in the WPA Federal Art Project.

Through the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lawrence completed carefully-researched series of paintings on the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. He followed these with paintings that traced the Northward migration of blacks after the Civil War and depicted events in Harlem.

During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard. Afterward, he painted still another series, this one based on wartime experiences.

The civil rights movement and the desegregation of the South during the late 1950s and 1960s provided Lawrence with themes for later paintings. At the same time, he undertook the first of many teaching assignments.

Even Lawrence's mature paintings have retained an almost childlike simplicity. This, combined with his ability to capture expressive human gestures, gives his work a subdued strength.

A trip to Nigeria in 1964 provided him with material that, for the first time, did not deal with the American black. In recent years Lawrence's paintings have dealt less with social commentary, and his more purely decorative side has come to the fore.

About the John Brown Series:

John Brown and his heroic actions were the inspiration for a generation, in addition to such artists as William Henry Johnson and Charles White, during the turbulent social and political decades of Lawrence's youth. John Brown had taken on the militant struggle of achieving freedom for African Americans with a single-mindedness and drive that overcame failures, bankruptcy and defeat. Lawrence's historical cycle succinctly describes each chapter of his mission from his early beginnings until his final fateful raid on Harpers Ferry with an accompanying descriptive title. Upon his 1847 meeting with Brown for the first time, Federick Douglass stated that, "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves. Brown is shown organizing early liberation raids in the Adirondacks, assisting the Underground Railroad and the Kansas militias of the mid-1850s, when the status of free or slave state was decided. The last 8 prints show how Brown finally led the 21 men who stormed and briefly held the fort of Harpers Ferry in 1859. Lawrence captures not only the physical action but he uses composition and colors to symbolize the spiritual burdens of a devout Christian, and the rise of black militancy and nationalism in the United States. John Brown's call to arms turned the Abolitionist movement into the life and death struggle that many blacks had to endure. His trial for treason and hanging cemented his martyrdom as national legend. "He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .," said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. "No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . ."

Based on Lawrence's 1941 series of 22 gouache and tempera paintings The Life of John Brown, this set of prints was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. Jacob Lawrence used his first of three successive Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowships to complete the series of paintings - the same year he married Gwendolyn Knight. The 23-year old artist had already received extraordinary attention for his earlier historical painting series Frederick Douglass, The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman and The Migration Series. These original works from The Life of John Brown were too fragile for traveling exhibitions by the time of the Whitney retrospective in 1974. Due to extensive paint loss, the Institute had to decline the request for their loan to this exhibition. Ives-Sillmann re-created with the artist the series in order to bring the works to a broader public. The portfolio is a tour-de-force of screenprint printmaking: each print was made through hand-cut film stencils and displays the precision that had previously attracted artists such as Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt to Ives-Sillman. Romare Bearden and Harry B. Henderson, Jr., A History of African-American Artists, p. 300. Nesbett L77-5.

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