Jacob Lawrence, a Famous Artist and Activist

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Who is Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)?

Jacob Lawrence was an American painter born on September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He grew up in Harlem, New York City, which would later significantly influence his artwork. Lawrence began drawing at a young age and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his artistic talents. In the 1930s, Lawrence attended the Harlem Community Art Center and the American Artists School, where he studied under influential artists such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. During this time, he developed his unique style characterized by bold colors, geometric shapes, and narrative approaches.

At 23, Lawrence gained recognition for his groundbreaking paintings titled “The Migration Series” (1940-1941). The series consisted of 60 panels that depicted the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. It was highly acclaimed for its storytelling ability and became one of Lawrence’s most notable works.

Lawrence continued to create art that focused on the experiences of Black Americans and their struggles for equality. His subjects ranged from historical events, such as the lives of abolitionists or the Haitian Revolution, to everyday scenes of Harlem life. He often used a series format to tell stories and explore various themes. Lawrence received numerous honors throughout his career, including grants, fellowships, and honorary degrees. Jacob Lawrence passed away on June 9, 2000, leaving a significant legacy in American art. 

Jacob Lawrence Activism

Jacob Lawrence strongly advocated for African-American artists and their representation in the art world. He believed in the importance of telling the stories and experiences of Black Americans through art and fought against the marginalization and exclusion of Black artists.

One of Lawrence’s notable efforts was his involvement with the Harlem Artists Guild, a collective of American artists in New York City. The guild was founded in 1935 to support Black artists and promote their work. Lawrence joined the guild in the early 1940s and actively participated in its activities and initiatives. Lawrence also co-founded the Cinque Gallery in 1969, Cinque—named for Joseph Cinque, who led the 1839 revolt on the Amistad slave ship after being kidnapped in Sierra Leone— along with fellow artist  Romare BeardenErnest Crichlow, and Norman Lewis.

The gallery was created as a space for Black artists to exhibit their work and gain recognition in the art world. It provided a platform for emerging artists and a hub for artistic and cultural exchange within the African-American community. Additionally, Lawrence taught and mentored younger generations of Black artists. He taught at various institutions, including the Pratt Institute and the University of Washington, where he influenced and inspired many aspiring artists. He encouraged his students to explore their cultural heritage and incorporate it into their art. 

Jacob Lawrence’s Voice Through Paint

Jacob Lawrence used painting as a powerful tool to tell the history of Black Americans. He was known for his narrative style and his ability to capture significant moments and experiences through his artwork.

Lawrence’s most famous work is “The Migration Series,” which depicts the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North during the early 20th century. Through his paintings, Lawrence not only documented historical events but also conveyed the emotions and struggles of Black Americans. His bold colors, geometric shapes, and simplified figures created a visual language that resonated with viewers and conveyed a sense of urgency and importance.

Lawrence believed in the power of art to educate and inspire change. By telling the stories of Black Americans through his paintings, he challenged existing narratives and pushed for a more inclusive and accurate representation of history. 

Jacob Lawrence Mentor.

As a mentor, Jacob Laurence promoted a sense of community among his students, fostering a supportive environment for exploration and growth. Lawrence emphasized the importance of understanding and appreciating one’s cultural heritage in art. He encouraged his students to delve into their backgrounds, histories, and experiences, urging them to incorporate these elements into their work. By doing so, Lawrence helped young Black artists find their unique artistic voices and express their identities authentically.

Through his mentorship, Lawrence also imparted the value of perseverance and determination. He shared his experiences of overcoming challenges and barriers as a Black artist, inspiring his students to push through obstacles and pursue their artistic goals with passion and resilience. Moreover, Lawrence actively advocated for his mentees, promoting their work and creating opportunities for them to exhibit and gain recognition. This included showcasing their artwork at the Cinque Gallery, which he co-founded.

By providing a platform for emerging Black artists, Lawrence helped elevate their visibility within the art world and fostered a sense of pride and validation. Overall, Lawrence’s teaching and mentoring profoundly impacted the artistic development and recognition of younger Black artists. His guidance, support, and advocacy empowered new artists to navigate the art world, embrace their cultural identities, and contribute their unique perspectives to the broader artistic landscape.

Some of Jacob Lawrence’s most important works that reflect his activism include: 

 1. “Migration Series” – This series of paintings depicts the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th century. It is considered one of his most iconic and impactful works. 

2. “The Harlem Series” – This series explores the vibrancy and cultural richness of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, highlighting the achievements of Black artists, musicians, and intellectuals during this transformative period.

 3. “Struggle… From the History of the American People” – This series addresses significant moments in American history, including the American Revolution, abolitionism, and labor movements, while examining racial injustices and inequalities throughout the country’s past. These are just a few examples of Jacob Lawrence’s influential works that both stirred and shed light on his activism for social justice and the recognition of Black voices in art.

Jacob Lawrence painted until the last week of his life when he lost his battle with lung cancer. Jacob and his wife Gwendolyn have established a Foundation for the creation, presentation, and Study of American art, focusing on the work of African-American artists. Lawrence’s artworks are in the permanent collections of hindered museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the White House Art Collection. He was honored with a Washington State Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award 1984. His artworks and legacy continue to inspire emerging artists all over the world.

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