Jacob Armstead Lawrence
September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000
Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, NJ the first of Rosa Lee and Jacob Lawrence’s children. His father supported the family as a railroad cook but relocated the family when he was two years old to search for work as a coal miner. They settled in Easton, Pennsylvania, and remained there for five years until Lawrence’s parents separated when he was seven years old.
Following the separation, the family moved without Lawrence’s father to Philadelphia, PA where they spent another five years. Some sources state that he and at least two siblings were placed in foster care while their mother looked for work. They then relocated to Harlem, NY to join their mom where Lawrence would spend a significant part of his life.
His arrival in Harlem coincided with the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the Great Depression. Lawrence attended P.S. 89 located in the heart of Harlem at 135th St & Lenox Ave and an afterschool program at the Utopia Children’s Center. It was at that program that Lawrence’s talent was first noticed by Charles Alston who managed the Center.
Lawrence worked on a drawing project outside the program focused on geometric patterns. Later, he began painting on his own while attending Commerce High School. Unfortunately, Lawrence had to drop out of high school after two years as he needed to work to help support his family. This was in the midst of The Great Depression and after Lawrence’s mother had lost her job which created financial issues for the family and resulted in them applying for welfare.
Temporarily relocating to Upstate New York, Lawrence participated in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Members of The Corps were employed in various public works projects as with other New Deal programs. Lawrence helped plant trees, drain swamps, and build dams.
Upon returning to Harlem, Lawrence once again immersed himself in art. He spent time at the Harlem Community Art Center which was managed by the sculptor, Augusta Savage. Being active in Harlem’s art community brought Lawrence into contact with several notable artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Another local, Professor Seifert recommended that Lawrence make use of Harlem’s Schomburg Library to research the history and culture of the Black diaspora. The energy of day-to-day life in Harlem also inspired Lawrence.
While Lawrence had spent his youth in the Northeast, his parents were from the South. They along with millions of others left the open hostility of the Jim Crow South in search of better opportunities in the North and West. This mass exodus would come to be known as “The Great Migration” and Lawrence saw himself as a child of the mass movement.
Lawrence combined the geometric style he’d been exploring with vibrant colors. He viewed himself as not just an artist but also an educator. Lawrence used art as a conduit for expressing the experiences and feelings of Black people. He created several narrative series featuring important figures and events from Black history. A history that was not being taught in schools.
Some of the series Lawrence created included multi-panel works about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. But the most famous is arguably his Great Migration series. In preparation, he spent time gathering research at the library. At the time, World War II was underway and many Black people were arriving in the North in search of wartime jobs. He spoke to his parents, family members, and others about their experiences.
Lawrence combined this information with the visual style he’d developed over the years. What emerged was a 60-panel series that told the story of the Great Migration. Each painting depicts a different scene and was accompanied by a short description. Following its completion, the series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery. This made Lawrence the first Black artist to be represented by a gallery in New York City. The series received magazine coverage and was ultimately purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Phillips Collection.
The success of the series brought Lawrence national attention. He spent the rest of the decade serving in the Coast Guard after being drafted, began a college teaching career, and completed additional series about war and its aftermath with the assistance of grants and commissions. Unfortunately, his sudden success plunged Lawrence into a deep depression and he voluntarily committed himself to a hospital where he received one year of treatment.
Lawrence resumed painting and created several works about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He also continued his work as an educator, teaching at various schools around the country. In 1941, Lawrence had married Gwendolyn Knight, another artist whom he’d known since his teens. Their marriage provided a strong support system for them both. They eventually relocated to Seattle, Washington where Lawrence continued to paint until shortly before he died of cancer on June 9, 2000.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Jacob Lawrence.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. October 27, 2021. https://www.biography.com/artist/jacob-lawrence.
- Diamond, Anna. 2017. “Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century after His Birth.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. September 5, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-works-visionary-artist-jacob-lawrence-still-resonate-century-after-his-birth-180964706/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Jacob Lawrence.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 3, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacob-Lawrence.
- “Jacob Lawrence.” n.d. DC Moore Gallery. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/jacob-lawrence.
- “Jacob Lawrence.” n.d. Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. University of Washington. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.cs.washington.edu/art/JacobLawrence.
- “Jacob Lawrence.” n.d. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/jacob-lawrence-2828.
- Kedmey, Karen. 2021. “Jacob Lawrence: Moma.” The Museum of Modern Art. 2021. https://www.moma.org/artists/3418.
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