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Articles on artshole - American Painter – Life of Jacob Lawrence


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American Painter – Life of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Armstead Lawrence’s parents were part of the Negro migration, drawing blacks from the southern states and the Caribbean islands to better employment and social opportunities in northern industrial cities. Lawrence’s mother was from Virginia and his father came from South Carolina. They met and first settled briefly in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Jacob Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917. Lawrence’s father was a cook on the railroad and was often away from home. Soon after Lawrence’s sister and brother, Geraldine and William, were born, his parents became separated. In about 1927, Lawrence’s mother went to New York seeking better job opportunities. She left the children in foster homes, and would return to visit them as soon as possible. As soon as she could, his mother brought the children to New York. They settled in Harlem around 1930, in the upper 130s and 140s, between Lexon And Seventh Avenues near Striver’s Row.

The Harlem community to which Jacob Lawrence and his family moved to had just experienced the rich decade of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. With the onset of the depression the Renaissance waned, but the social fabric of Harlem continued to foster new attitude and cultural growth. Harlem of the early 1930s was a unique black community - the largest of its kind in the world. It was crowded, sophisticated, a place mixed with different races. Harlem first began to grow rapidly during the period of the Negro migration. Being part of the largest city in the country, Harlem attracted a good portion of the migrants. The persistence of the cultural floodtides in Harlem in the 30s was made possible in part by the continuing support of philanthropic agencies such as the Harmon foundation, with missionary overtones - a white organisation. These have all been very active in the period of the Harlem Renaissance. These foundations were interested in encouraging the artistic development of the Negro race. The Harmon Foundation offered grants to artists and writers and sponsored annual art exhibition with large cash prize.

Young Lawrence was highly influenced by and responded well to the spirit of black consciousness among the older artists and thinkers of the Harlem Community. His strong awareness of heritage, gained from these cultural leaders led him to develop narrative and thematic modes in his art to communicate with the black experience clearly and effectively. Lawrence became fascinated with black history and its heroic figures – an interest that pervaded Harlem. Lawrence said ‘…. people would speak of these thing on the street. I was encouraged by the community to do work of this kind; they were interested in them.’ In the first phase of his career, Jacob Lawrence fixed the artistic pattern that had served him for fifty years. Genre and narrative proved assertive vehicles for how he wished to communicate. The water-based media, the small format of paper or panels easily moved about on his worktable, the colourful pattern of forms flattened into vibrant geometries - all elements of his work developed even since he was a child had his trademarks. His theme – man’s struggle – which was the essence of his life’s work.

Jacob Lawrence grew up in Harlem during the depression. That epoch of social awareness and burgeoning black consciousness, economic hard times, and government support of arts were the source for bringing up this developing young painter. Harlem was a cultural nucleus of the nation in the 1920s and early 1930s. Lawrence felt the persistence influence, the Harlem Renaissance had enveloped him within the artistic concentration thriving Harlem. He also found inspirations in his teachers, and in the people he met. Lawrence’s mother, a single parent, tried to support her three children with domestic work but often end with welfare. While juggling odd jobs to help out, Lawrence committed himself to painting as a young teenager and had never change his commitment throughout his entire life. During his formative years, he was fortunate in being encouraged by a group of matured artists in his community. Never visited an art gallery until the age of eighteen, so his entrance to art came mainly from his teachers and through reading, local exhibitions, and frequent trips to the Metropolitan Museum. As a young teenager he met artist Gwendolyn Knight; their friendship lead to marriage.

When Lawrence began his career in the mid 1930s, his work assumed the characteristic of what was broadly called Social Realism, the predominant style of that period in America. The content of his art was presented through the modes of historical narrative and genre, a style of painting depicting ordinary life. Focusing on human figure, presented in tableaux of expressive forms. His subject ranges from simple street scenes to emotional rendering of social inequalities.

A unique aspect of Lawrence’s oeuvre had been his consistent use of the series as a format to render narrative content. Like the few of his early series painted in the 1930s already showing signs of determination to express the theme. After Lawrence had settled down into the life of black community as his subject matter, he turned to history as a source for more ambitious subject and painted the Toussaint series, focusing on the mistreatment of the Haitian by the colonial farmers and military leaders and on Toussaint’s heroic struggle to educate himself, fight the military occupational forces, and achieve independence for Haitian. He emphasised Toussaint not as a victim, but a revolutionary. In a statement for the Harlem foundation in 1940s, he wrote:

We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people who were so much worse off than people today, could conquer their slavery, we can certainly do the same thing. They had to liberate themselves without any education.’1

1 . Jacob Lawrence American Painter – Ellen Harkins Wheat - p.16
In the late 1930s Lawrence moved on to the Harriet Tubman series, which was about a Negro lady, born slave in Maryland, around 1821. Dedicated her life to liberate slaves from plantation in the south, helping them to escape at night through the refuge network of the Underground Railroad.

‘I am no friend to slavery, but I prefer the liberty of my own people to that of another people, and the liberty of my own race to that of another race.’
-Henry Clay2

Lawrence’s distinctive formal approach is dominated by his attempt to capture the feeling obtain from his subject. In his pictorial indictment of man’s cruelty and injustice, his discreet but often strong messages are readily apparent, obtained through distortion of shapes, space and colour. His chosen iconography always clearly supported his aims of personal emotive expression.

On July 24, 1941 Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight were married. The following Month, they went to New Orleans for their Honeymoon where Lawrence started on the John Brown Series. By 1941 November his Migration of the Negro series was shown at New York’s prestigious downtown gallery. With this exhibition, Lawrence became the first black artist to be presented by a New York gallery. That same month, the Tune magazine reproduced twenty-six of the series sixty panels in colour in a lengthy article. Since these events, Lawrence’s life story had been a record of achievements and accolades; his career had been singularly free of disappointment and controversy. However in 1943, life changed for Lawrence. The United States entered World War 2 on the European front within a week of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on October 20th, 1943. Jacob Lawrence was drafted into the U.S coast guard, at that time part of the Navy. He was given a steward’s mate rating, the assignment then commonly given to Blacks entering the Navy. While in the service, he initially underwent unpleasant experience of discrimination. In his first ship assignment, Lawrence was fortunate, the captain of the vessel, lieutenant Charlton Skinner, was conducting what the press called an ‘experiment to combat racial discrimination at sea Lawrence received permission to take a racially mixed crews’. Lawrence made paintings of daily routine abroad ship activities in port preserve a record of a particular segment of this wartime experience. They also represent for Lawrence an opportunity to be part of a way of life that was relatively free of discrimination. This fact was reflected in his pictorial statement being quiet, even tempered. Both races working together and mingle in recreational activities.

In December 1945 Lawrence returning from thewar, he was saluted by New Masses magazine at an award dinner’Honouring Negro and white Americans whose achievement in the arts, science, public life are major contribution towards greater racial understanding.’

2 . Jacob Lawrence American Painter – Ellen Harkins Wheat - p.57
By the end of 1940s, he was around thirty-two, he had been widely known as the foremost black artist in the country. Lawrence was extremely successful and had enjoy wide recognition for almost a decade. Succumbing to the pressure created by this success, in October 1949 he entered into the Hillside Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Queens, as a patient. Lawrence spent nine months at Hillside, returning home in July 1950. Throughout his treatment and voluntary confinement, Lawrence remained actively creative. Producing drawing and painting for patients, their moods and routine, and this is when he began his hospital series. The hospital series are a unique serial document in art history, presenting the life of psychiatric patients.

In the mid 1950s, where he had his own studio, working on the struggle series. The series carries observer from the revolutionary war through the early decades of American history with dramatic assertion. Since then Lawrence realized that his approach to American history was broadening and he quoted, ‘Years ago, I was just interested in expressing the Negro in American life, but a larger concern, an expression of humanity and of America, developed my history series grew out of my concern.’ 3 In style combines the monumental forms of previous historical series.

The Negro struggle is a simble of man’s struggle, from my point of view. Man’s struggle is a beautiful thing… The struggle that we go through as human beings enables us to develop, to take on further dimension.’4

By the early 1960s, Lawrence’s accomplishment were widely acknowledge throughout the art community. In 1965, he was elected to the membership in the National Institute of Art And Letters.

Lawrence’s dedication to the concept of family and continuing might have been derived from his hard earlier life. He was not close to either of his parents, and young brother and sister who both died from the cause of Symptomatic. His sister died from tuberculosis in her early twenties, and his brother from drug overdose, whilst both of his parents died from cancer. Today he seldom discusses his family, and one sense these are painful memories. Lawrence and his wife have developed a close bond over the forty-five year of their marriage. With no children of their own, their sense of family is vested in each other.

In December 1983, Jacob Lawrence was elected to the American of Arts and Letter, an honour acknowledging the contribution of his art and teaching over many years. Over the thirty years he has also distinguished himself as a teacher of drawing, painting and design. He is currently the professor emeritus of art, University of Washington, Seattle, where he is widely regarded with respect and affection.

In the last five decades, the coherence in Lawrence’s art has been unbroken. Lawrence has manifested a persistent concern with everyday reality and the dignity of

3 & 4. Jacob Lawrence American Painter – Ellen Harkins Wheat – p105

the poor, and all human effort toward freedom and justice. The career of Jacob Lawrence is characterised by a continuing allegiance to his cultural heritage. In his work, Lawrence not only acknowledges an awareness of the influence of his environment, he celebrates it. By focusing on the history and expectation from his community members. Although his work always speaks of the black experience from an emotionally autobiographical position, his imagery has universal appeal. Lawrence is a humanist with a moral vision, whose deep involvement with the struggle of mankind reminds us of the perpetual validity of the human story.

Over his long career, Jacob Lawrence has moved from a regionalist concern with East-coast urban specific imagery to a general symbolism in his west coast philosophical broadness. Always a social observer with a critical sensibility, Lawrence approaches his theme with a quiet didactism; his paintings set forth explicit social reality. Jacob Lawrence’s philosophy about the role and importance of art in human experience in an eloquent statement

‘Painting is a way of expressing one’s thought and feeling. I feel that I have become more articulated in painting than in any forms of expression. Therefore I am always striving to perfect this particular form of art as to reach a greater degree of articulation….’ 5

‘….My pictures express my life and experience. I paint the things I know and things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extended into my national, racial can class group. So I paint American scene.’6

5 & 6. Jacob Lawrence American Painter – Ellen Harkins Wheat – p192




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