Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important artists of the 20th century and best known for his series of narrative paintings depicting important moment in African American history was born on 7th September 1917 in Atlantic City (pbs.org, para. 1). He spent a portion of his childhood life in Pennsylvania after which his parents separated in 1924. Jacob and his siblings went with the mother to New York and settled in Harlem. He was introduced to art at his teen age when his mother enrolled him in Utopia Children’s center which provided an after school art program in Harlem. By 1930’s he could participate in the art programs at the Harlem Art Workshop and the Harlem community art centre, where he got a chance to meet leading American artists of the time such as Augusta Savage and Charles Alton, the director of Harlem workshop at the time and who later became a professor of art at Howard University (pbs.org, para.1).
Having trained as a painter at the Harlem workshop inside the New York Public Library’s 113 5th street branch, and despite being much younger than most of the artists and other writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, Lawrence was a force to recon with (Hughes, para.2). He was not interested in the type of idealized and fake primitives of blacks otherwise referred to as the Noble Negroes in art Deco guise, as they were usually produced as an antidote to the stereotypical racists. He gained confidence particularly from Alain Locke, who was a Harvard trained artist and also the first black Rhodes scholar in America. Locke strongly believed in the pieces of work done by blacks, as it could speak explicitly to African-Americans while still embodying value as well as self critical powers of modernism. Precisely, Locke believed that, “There is in truly great art in no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values” (Hughes, para. 2).
2.0 The work of Jacob Lawrence
Lawrence became well known at the age of 21 years when he did his “Toussant L’Ouverture Series”, a 41 painting collection that depicted a successful rebellion by the Haitian slaves. Three years later at the age of 24, his work became the first from an African American to be included in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art (Lawrence, para. 1). Lawrence therefore considered himself to be both an artist and an educator. He used his art to tell stories about the black American history as he felt that this was being overlooked in the teaching of history in America. For instance, Lawrence did a forty panel series which he called “The Life of Harriet Tubman” who in the 1800s had helped many slaves in the north to free through an Underground Railroad (Sernett, pp. 218).
From his childhood, Lawrence had been steeped in stories about movement and migration and therefore with encouragement from Locke, he worked hard to get historical background and related facts right. Months of research in the Schomburg Collection of the Public Library which is the chief archive of African American life and history in New York, saw the realization of his other piece of work, “Migration Series” which could help trace the mass influx of African Americas from the south to the North as a result of World War I. The two series are known for use of detailed titles and creative images to create narrative history of events (Lawrence, para. 2).
Additionally, the series are notable for lack of language use. The author was in no way a propagandist. He however advocated for front social realism which was at its peak in America at the time as evidenced by labor camps, prisons, deserted villages, city slums and race riots which were mainly his subject matter. Lawrence attributed his success to his black experience which was his heritage, more so as far as black Americans struggle to secure independence and justice was concerned. Even during adult hood, he extended this theme to include all human struggles for liberty, and although each of his paintings evidenced his sense of humor as well as human pain and misery, they offered hope for the human condition.
In 1937, Lawrence secured a two-year scholarship to the American artist school, where he studied with the Wilson, Philip Riesman and Eugene Moreley before marrying one of the pupil of Savage who was also a west Indian painter, Gwendolyn Knight in 1941.This scholarship took him out of Harlem but he still maintained a close contact with the community which was the focus of his work as evidenced by his work “Street Scene Restaurant”, “Street orator”, “Interior” and “Interior scenes” which were shown in 1938. Other notable work that was done by Lawrence were a 32 painting series, “The Frederic Douglass” and the 22 panel series that he painted while on honeymoon in 1941.
In the explosive 1960s, Lawrence painted what most critics have called his work of “Protest” in favor of civil rights struggle in the South. In one of his paintings, “The ordeal of Alice”, he showed a black girl dressed in white trying to get into a newly desegregated school in the South but demonic tormentors attack her with arrows in a scene that is common only with religious martyrs. In the late 1960s though, Lawrence progressed from portraying racial injustice into showing racial harmony. At this time he did his series, “Builders”, which showed both whites and blacks working together in building projects, scenes which could be interpreted to mean rebuilding the society. Despite the changing trends, both political and in artistic field, Lawrence remained true to his own original and creative path until his death in June 9, 2000 (Sernett, pp. 82).
3.0 His work compared with others
A comparison between the work of art done by Jacob Lawrence and that of other artists of his time reveals a lot of difference, with most these differences inclined to Lawrence’s outstanding. While most of the artists, especially those doing watercolor paintings like him, are usually inclined to beauty and elegance, Lawrence was different. Even the most recent artists such as Thomas Deir, despite making the highest sale of $ 10,000 in the Waikiki gallery, do not seem to belong to the same school of thought with Jacob Lawrence (hawaiiart.com).
The work of Lawrence, despite bringing out beauty, also carries some real life meanings as far as human life is concerned. The “Toussant L’Ouverture Series”, for example is a series that is not only elegant but also carries success. Depicting a successful rebellion by slaves, especially at the time when slave trade and slavery accompanied with a lot of other human misery was rampant, the painting can be said to carry more than Thomas Dier’s “Mokulua Milky Way valued at over $2000” as far as human values and relevance is concerned (hawaiiart.com). Other renowned artists such Judy Abott or Michelle Amatrula, though recognized for making huge sales from their pieces of work, do not address contemporary issues like Lawrence does.
The other artist who could in away compares to Jacob Lawrence is Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) who is particularly known for his Luminists landscape particularly of the storms and marshes in South America as well as still life paintings. Martin Johnson Heade (originally Heed) was equally a talented artist of the nineteenth century. He is remembered for his flora, fauna and landscape paintings that do not only have a rich effect of color and light but could also portray some poetic sentiments. Lawrence however still appears to outweigh Heade in what can be drawn from a critical analysis of their work. Put in simple terms, while the work from both artists share beauty, Lawrence has some educative aspect injected into his work.
By all definitions, Lawrence was better than most of the other artists of the time as evidenced by the numerous awards and credit that goes to his name. In 1974, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a major retrospective of the work done by Lawrence which later resulted to his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, while in 1977, he received an invitation to paint during the inauguration of Jimmy Carter. In May 2007, the White House Historical Association bought Lawrence’s “Builders” shown below for $2.5 million at auction. This painting today hangs in the white House Green Room (Crehan, para.5).
Jacob Lawrence is probably one of the best artists that ever appeared on the face of earth. His work reveals a rare talent that he recognized and exploited fully. Despite being a black American, he beat all odds to become one of the best artists of the 21st century while the plight of fellow black Americans remained a dear concern to his heart. This is what his work addressed. Jacob Lawrence is no doubt a legend whose life deserves recognition by and over generations while his artistic work will continue to demand respect over centuries.
Courtney from Study Moose
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