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HOW JACOB LAWRENCE USED PAINTING TO POWERFULLY TELL THE HISTORIES OF BLACK AMERICANS.

BY CLAIRE SELVIN October 21, 2020

Jacob Lawrence, 'A cent and a
Jacob Lawrence, A cent and a half a mile, a mile and a half an hour. —slogan of the Erie Canal builders, Panel 29, from “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–56, egg tempera on hardboard.© THE JACOB AND GWENDOLYN KNIGHT LAWRENCE FOUNDATION, SEATTLE/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

Jacob Lawrence, who is known for his vibrant figurative paintings focused on Black Americans’ experiences, daily life in Harlem, and events from U.S. history, is one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century. He once said that his works “express my life and experience. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced.” With Lawrence’s series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until November 1 (a missing painting from the series was just found by the museum), ARTnews looked back on the artist’s pioneering career and some of his most acclaimed artworks. The guide below traces key milestones in Lawrence’s life.

Lawrence nurtured his interest in drawing and painting in his school days.
Born in 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence moved to Harlem at age 12 with his mother following his parents’ separation. Upon his arrival in New York, the artist attended Public School 89 as well as an arts after school program at the Utopia Children’s Center, which at the time was run by painter Charles Alston. Lawrence would continue creating drawings and paintings during high school before he joined a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, for which he worked in upstate New York in the early 1930s. When he moved back to Harlem a few years later, the artist got involved with the Harlem Community Art Center, where he met the sculptor Augusta Savage, who directed the organization. It was in this period that he also met the historian and lecturer Charles “Professor” Seifert, who was an early influence on Lawrence’s work and offered the artist access to his vast personal collection of literature. Some of Lawrence’s earliest paintings, including a 1937 series focused on Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and comprising 41 panels, took historical figures as their subjects. …

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