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Art History - Jacob Lawrence

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

"This is my genre...the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind as realized in the teeming black ghetto." - Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000

For this Art History Blog of 2023, we will start digging back into the Harlem Renaissance Artists of the early 20th century. Our first artist I wanted to learn about was African-American artist , Jacob Lawrence. I have been trying to find my voice in the art world and these self reflections and journey through art history have benefitted me greatly by learning about these pioneers of the art world. My goal is by learning more about them I inspire others to do their own research but also find the inspiration to tell their own story in the work they produce.


Table of Contents

Early Life
Art Career
Personal Reflections


Jacob was born September 7,1917, over a century ago in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In his youth he moved notably twice, from Easton, Pa, to Philadelphia. His parents divorced in 1924, which resulted in him and his other siblings being placed into Foster care by his mother as she looked for work in New York. At the age of 13, he was finally back in his mothers care when they reunited in Harlem, NY. This began his introduction to the art world, as he attended after school programs, at the Utopia Children's Center. He was known to draw patterns with Crayons, using his mothers carpets as a reference.

It was a few years after dropping out of school that he met Harlem Renaissance Artist, Charles Alston, at the Harlem Art Workshop. He constantly encouraged Jacob to pursue Art seriously in school. Although he received training in school, it was the community that really helped him learn the arts. His experience in Harlem would go on to influence the subject matter of his professional career.


Early in his career he developed the style that later he became well renown for. His paintings told the story of the African American experience of his time, which centered mainly in the Great Depression era. In the 1930's he was a mere 21 years old when he created his first series, a total of 41 paintings of the Haitian General Toussaint L'Ouverture, a leading revolutionary for the Haitian slaves seeking independence. This body of work was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He didn't stop there as he created another series of paintings, centered on the prolific lives of Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglas. He later married a fellow painter Gwendolyn Knight, in 1941, a contributor to his work, preparing panels and captions for him.

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 1(1941)

His most famous body of work was the 60-Panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro or And the Migrants Kept Coming. Commonly known as the Migration Series, this series captured the essence of the Great Migration of blacks from the the rural South to urban North after World War I. His approach and style was that of tempera, a quick drying method of painting, which meant he had to carefully plan his colors before completing the whole piece. As you can see from the picture above his work centered around colors, and a semi-abstract approach. Contextually, his work gave viewers a history lesson and a profound look inside the black experience of his time and centuries before him. He became the first African American artist to be represented by a US Gallery, as well as showcasing his work in Fortune magazine in 1941.

He was later drafted in World War II , as a US Coast Guard. Ironically he was able to paint and sketch his experience of war, producing about 48 painting which were lost. This is something I learned was common with some of his art series. He had a brief stay at a Hospital as he suffered from depression for most of 1949-1950. Jacob, continued to paint other series after the Migration, such as 'Struggle: From the History of the American People". In his later years he published and illustrated children's books, of which, one of them entitled 'Harriet and the Promised Land' was The New York Times best illustrated books for the year. He also taught at several schools and painted all the way up until his death, June 9th, 2000, at the young age of 82 years old.

| Personal Reflections

For me viewing his work, I instantly fell in love with it. For years I have been caught up with learning my techniques within the digital world so the last thing on my mind was creating subject matter work. As I have entered a comfortable place with my techniques, my focus has shifted and I want to focus on the African American culture, specifically from the South in my own backyard of Houston, TX. I see Jacob's colors and they just stand out and are eye captivating. I love realism but semi-abstract with a pop art feel is the direction I surprisingly enjoy the most. I feel that his work is unique and a key identifier of his style and body of work. I would like for people when they see my new work going forward to recognize my style as well as telling a story. My closest work is the School Girls Lines, which was to show appreciation and the innocence of integration with kids who aren't born with hate but taught it. The colors inside all of them show the harmony that can unite us if we allow it to. 2023 and beyond will be a time of personal reflection on what I want to put out as well as seeing Jacob's series I believe will help me expand what I put out. I won't focus on necessarily the pretty pictures but how can this express the beautiful culture I grew to love and appreciate to this very day.

I do not look upon the story of the Blacks in America as a separate experience to the American culture but as a part of the American heritage and experience as a whole.
Jacob Lawrence

School Girls Lines, 2022, Clutchart91 LLC

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For more information on Jacob Lawrence please see the following sources and affiliated paid links:


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