Jacob Lawrence 1917-2000

Jacob Lawrence is an artist that inspires me. He was one of the most acclaimed African-American painters of the 20th century, and according to the New York Times, “one of America’s leading modernist painters.”

I am drawn to his work for a couple of reasons. First, I really enjoy narrative art and Lawrence’s work tells great stories, usually in multiple panels with marvelous symbolism. Secondly, I am an urban planner and Lawrence’s work brilliantly combines urban planning concepts with visual art and art narratives.

Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey and moved with his parents to Easton, Pennsylvania at the age of 2. When his parents separated in 1924, his mother left him and his two younger siblings in foster care in Philadelphia, and went to work in New York City. At the age of 13, Lawrence joined his mother in Harlem, and became immersed in the arts, when she enrolled him in the Utopia Children’s Center, which also had an after-school art program. In addition, Lawrence began attending workshops geared towards Black artists, which were not available in the regular segregated art academies.

One of Lawrence’s early artistic influences and inspirations was none other than his mother. He was greatly impressed by her interior design taste, and ability to keep a beautiful home, despite financial difficulties. Lawrence often stated that he learned much from the patterns his mother chose while decorating, as well as the colors chosen in her decor.

Lawrence achieved national fame in his early 20’s, with “The Migration of the Negro,” also titled, “Migration Series,” which is his best-known 60-panel body of work. The paintings, tempera on hard board, are narrative depictions of the Negro Race’s great migration, from the south to the north, in search of a better life.

Panel #57 of the “Migration Series,” evokes a range of emotions within me. The piece depicts Black women; working as domestics, laundry women and cleaners for very low wages. Lawrence’s mother was one of those women. His comprehensive painting method, as well as the bold colors and abstracted shapes, which are important characteristics of the series, draws me in. As does his use of unmixed paint colors, applied directly to the panels, which gave the entire series a very strong unified appearance.

Although it is not featured in Panel #57, one of the most important symbols in the series is the railroad, which ties the narrative of the “Migration Series” together. Again, in studying this piece as an urban planner, various concepts of Transportation Planning, flood my mind. The series was completed in 1940-41, and Fortune Magazine featured 26 of his panels, while the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Collection jointly purchased the entire body of work. After the completion of the “Migration Series,” Lawrence continued to paint narratives in a series format.

Prior to receiving critical acclaim for the Migration Series, Lawrence had established a working process of creating narrative series. In 1937 he created a 41 piece series on paper detailing the life of Toussaint L’ouverture. The following year he created a series of 32 works about Frederick Douglass, and then in 1939, 31 works on Harriet Tubman.

After the 1941 completion of the Migration Series, Lawrence completed a group of 30 paintings in 1942-43, which detailed life in Harlem. Topics in that series also included black women workers, but also community life and leisure, and religious life. Again, his use of bold colors, and repetition of shapes and symbols, like in the Migration Series, brought this set of narratives to life.

The “War Series” was yet another epic narrative series for Lawrence. In 1942, he was drafted into the Coast Guard, and stationed in St. Augustine, FL. Later, he served in the Navy, and then as a Coast Guard Artist, where he created images about the war and the stories of his fellow servicemen. Unfortunately, all of the 48 paintings created during his tour of duty were lost. In 1946, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and again painted the “War Series,” however, this time it was based on his own experiences and observations.

Lawrence’s subject matter shifted to the Civil Rights Movement and changes in race relations and politics in the 1950s and 60s. From the 1970s through 90s he received numerous commissions for prints and murals, including commissions for the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and covers for Time Magazine.

Jacob Lawrence kept creating works up until a few months before his death in 2000.