Jacob Lawrence was an African-American painter, educator, and storyteller. Best remembered for his portrayal of African-American life, he is regarded as one of the most popular African-American painters of the 20th century. He also served as the professor of art at the prestigious University of Washington from 1971 until his retirement in 1986. The son of southern migrants, Lawrence moved with his mother to Harlem following his parents’ divorce when he was 13. He discovered his love of art while participating in community art workshops. After dropping out of school at the age of 16, he continued practicing art and attended Harlem Art Workshop where he got encouragement from Charles Alston. In 1938, Lawrence displayed his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA. He earned national recognition when he was 23 with his ‘60-panel Migration Series’. During his later years, he contributed to a variety of media forms, including book illustrations, large-scale murals, and silkscreen prints. As of today, his works have been displayed in numerous museums, including Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Philadelphia Museum of Art. On a personal note, Lawrence was married to painter Gwendolyn Knight until his death in 2000.
Childhood & Early Life
Jacob Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, to Rosa Lee and Jacob. He had two siblings, Geraldine and William.
His parents divorced in 1924, and Lawrence alongside his two younger siblings moved into foster care. At the age of 13, he reconnected with his mother in Harlem.
During this time, he attended Utopia Children's Center where he studied arts and crafts. After dropping out from school at the age of 16, Lawrence joined a printing plant and laundromat.
In 1934, he enrolled in Works Progress Administration art classes. Later, he attended Harlem Art Workshop where he was taught by the famous African-American artist Charles Alston.
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Jacob Lawrence’s initial work was a series of paintings of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian general who led the Haitian Revolution. These 41 pictures were exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art during 1937-38.
This was followed by the Harriet Tubman series that was displayed during 1938–39. Lawrence then created a series of pieces about the life of American social reformer Frederick Douglass.
At the age of 23, he earned national recognition for his work called ‘Migration Series’ (formerly Migration of the Negro). This 60-panel set of narrative paintings depicted the migration of thousands of African Americans to the north after World War I. These paintings on “Great Migration” were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1938, Lawrence displayed his first ever solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and became the most distinguished African-American painters in the country.
In October 1943, after the outbreak of Second World War, he served in the United States Coast Guard. During this time, he continued with his art work and produced 48 paintings, documenting the experience of the war.
In 1946, he taught at the Black Mountain College where he was greatly influenced by the teaching of Josef Albers. Then in 1947, he created his work, ‘The Businessmen’.
The talented artist moved to Washington where he created a series of paintings on the westward journey of George Washington Bush. These images are currently displayed at the State of Washington History Museum.
After many years in New York, he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1970. There, he served as an art professor at the renowned University of Washington. For the university’s press, Lawrence illustrated an adaptation of Aesop's Fables in 1997.
His last public work, ‘New York in Transit,’ was installed in 2001 in New York City’s Times Square subway station. The glass mosaic mural pays tribute to the diversity of New York City, its cultural life, neighborhoods, etc.
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Early in his career, Jacob Lawrence relied on a massive amount of historical research. He searched for historical texts, newspapers, memoirs, etc. and converted them into images.
He often created numerous individual panels in a series that would tell a story. He utilized unified color palettes, recurring motifs, and montage-effects to connect his individual paintings.
He borrowed strategies from print media and made realistic stories using flat colors in large planes. He paired his paintings with long, descriptive captions.
Awards & Recognitions
In 1970, the NAACP awarded Jacob Lawrence the Spingarn Medal. A year later, he became an associate member of the National Academy of Design.
In 1983, he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1990, he garnered the US National Medal of Arts.
Lawrence received The Washington Medal of Merit, the highest honor of Washington State, in 1998.
His works are currently displayed in the permanent collections of many notable museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum.
After this death, the ‘New York Times’ labeled him as "One of America's leading modern figurative painters”.
In 2007, the White House Historical Association purchased his work ‘The Builders’ for $2.5 million at an auction. Now, the painting is displayed on the walls of the White House Green Room.
Family & Personal Life
On July 24, 1941, Jacob Lawrence married the painter Gwendolyn Knight. The two were married until his death in 2000. His wife died in 2005.
The couple ran the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation that maintains an archive of over 1,000 images of their work.
Death & Legacy
On 9 June 2000, Jacob Lawrence died of lung cancer in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 82.
The University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery provides an annual Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency.
The Seattle Art Museum offers the prestigious Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship bi-annually. This $10,000 award is given to mid-career artists for their artistic achievements in less than ten years.