Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance

Wed, Feb 06, 2019 at 4:02PM

By Ruth Grim, Chief Curator/Gary R. Libby Curator of Art


Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000, To Preserve Their Freedom, from Toussain L'Ouverture series, serigraph, 1988-1997

Beginning on February 2 and in honor of Black History month and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, MOAS will have the exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: Three Print Series on view in the Karshan Center of Graphic Art. 

Jacob Lawrence

One of the twentieth century's most celebrated African-American artists, Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City in 1917 to a couple who had moved from the rural South to find a better life in the North. In this way, Lawrence's family was a part of "The Great Migration," a period in the earliest decades of the last century when more than a quarter million African-Americans left their rural southern state homes to move to more free-thinking urban centers such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. This led to a cultural and intellectual heyday given the term "the Harlem Renaissance." 

Archibald Motely, 1891-1981, Nightlife, 1943. Oil on canvas.

Between 1919 and 1930 was a time of great development of African-American ideas as expressed through the visual arts, music, dance, theater, and literature. Centered in Harlem on the island of Manhattan, the New Negro Movement (as it was called at the time) had an important influence across the United States and around the world. Writers and intellectuals such as Langston Huges, Alain Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston made their mark during these years as well as performers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers such as Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Aaron Douglas, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith, to name only a handful.

Louis Armstrong

In addition to the thriving Harlem music scene of this era, popular theorists such as Alain Locke urged African-American artists to draw their inspiration from black history stretching back to Africa. Painters like Aaron Douglas (1900-1979) heard the call and contributed African-inspired illustrations to Locke's publications such as The New Negro and others. Later, in the Depression era during the 30s, Douglas created a series of four murals titled, Aspects of Negro Life for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 

Aaron Douglas, Song of the Towers, from the mural series Aspects of Negro Life, 1934 (not featured in the exhibition)

Such was the vibrant backdrop of Jacob Lawrence's upbringing. By 1930 after the separation of his parents, Lawrence and his two younger siblings had moved with their mother to Harlem. Here at the age of thirteen he quickly discovered art as a means of expression. Lawrence's education in art was both informal - observing the activity and rhythms of the streets of Harlem - and formal, in after-school community workshops at Utopia House and later at the Harlem Art Workshop. At both centers, he was able to study with the prominent artist Charles Alston. During his work, he became immersed in the cultural activity and fervor of the artists and writers who led the Harlem Renaissance, Alston among them.

Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977), Oh Freedom, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Institution

Lawrence received a scholarship to the American Artists School where he began to gain some notice for his dramatic and lively portrayals of both contemporary scenes and historical events. He depicted African-American urban crisp shapes, bright, clear colors, dynamic patterns, and through revealing postures and gestures. In 1938 Lawrence had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and started working in the easel painting division of the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1940, he recieved a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to create a series of images on the migration of African-Americans from the South. The painter Gwendolyn Knight assisted him with the captions for the images and inital coating of the panels. They married in 1941. The same year the Migration of the Negro series had its debut at the Downtown Gallery. Lawrence was the first artist of color to be represented by a major New York gallery and the success of this exhibition gave him national prominence. 

Jacob Lawrence, from The Migration of the Negro, 1941, oil on panel, Philips Collection

Jacob Lawrence's art was always grounded in historical research. Throughout his exceptionally long career he spent hours at the public library pouring over historical texts, memoirs, newspapers, and attending history clubs. He translated these histories into images and linked them to contemporary political struggles both in the North and the Jim Crow segregated South, reinvigorating traditional history painting. 

Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L'Oueverture from Toussaint L'Oueverture series, 1988-1997, serigraph

One of his most famous historical series, which will be on view in the Karshan Center of Graphic Art at MOAS, recounts the story of the famous liberator of Haiti, Toussaint L'Ouverture. L'Ouverture was a leader in the Haitian revolution. Born a slave, he rose to become commander in chief of the revolutionary army which achieved independence from France for Haiti in 1804 making it the first black Western republic. 

Jacob Lawrence, Hiroshima: Family, 1983, Tempera and gouache on paper

Lawrence captured another historic event in 20th century history with his series Hiroshima (1983) which was inspired by John Hersey's story published in The New Yorker in 1946. Lawrence had been invited by the Limited Editions Club of New Yrok to illustrated a book of his choice and he chose Hersey's account of several survivors from America's nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and reimagined it through a more abstract, universal perspective. In eight panels Lawrence painted reds peeling back to reveal white skeletal figures. The distorted figures look up in shock and confusion. Through his abstract composition, Lawrence captures the horror of this tragedy and demands empathy from the viewer. 

Jacob Lawrence, the Creation was done and all was well, from the Genesis Series

The last of the three-print series on view in this exhibitions is Lawrence's rendition of verses from the biblical book of Genesis. Pairing biblical verses with images of a passionate preacher illustrating their content, Lawrence recalled his Baptist upbringing in Harlem and captured the memories of images etched in his mind from his childhood. 

Jacob Lawrence left a long legacy and influenced many artist throughout the 20th century and after. He taught at instituations such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1946, and later at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1971, Lawrence became a professor of painting at the University of Washington in Seattle. Lawrence was still drawing and painting in preparation for still another series of work when he died in Seattle in 2000. 

Bookmark & Share

2024 Exhibit Sponsors
Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and the National Endowment for the Arts.