Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob
Lawrence became known for his narrative series of tempera paintings expressive
of his own life and that of his black peers who migrated from the South
to the North. His vivid collage-appearing canvases typically had bold
planes of color and symbolic elements of African-American heritage of
struggles, aspirations, and accomplishments.
Lawrence's style was wide ranging, but he was most associated with narrative
Synthetic Cubism whose popularity and uniqueness were suppressed by the
advent of Abstract Expressionism. His major work, "The Migration
of the Negro," was a culmination of the art of the 1930s and not
a harbinger of new styles.
He was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the son of parents who
moved North in search of work. His father abandoned the family in 1924,
and Lawrence and his siblings were in foster homes before reuniting with
their mother and then moving to Harlem in New York in 1930.
In New York, he took children's art
classes and later, dropping out of high school, worked at a laundry and
printing plant and took art training from Charles
Alston at the Harlem Community Art Center. At the Center, he associated
with a number of influential black people including painters Aaron
Douglas and William Johnson.
In 1936, he did the first work that brought him significant attention,
and this was a satirical series on street life in Harlem. The next year,
he began a narrative series of tempera paintings on the life of Haitian
independence leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. In 1937, Lawrence completed
a thirty-two piece series on the life of Frederic
Douglass, and in 1938, he did thirty-one paintings on the life of
In 1940, Lawrence painted what would become his best-known narratives,
"The Migration Series," sixty storybook panels on the life of
the Negro moving, as did his parents, from South to North following World
War I. For these works, he relied heavily on research he did at the Schomburg
Collection, a repository in Harlem of Black American history.
His working methods for his narrative cycles involved making detailed
preparatory drawings and then applying color, one at a time, to each piece
of paper, so that colors of the same palette were mixed all at once and
then applied simultaneously.
During World War II, Lawrence served in the Coast Guard and was assigned
to the first racially integrated ship in United States history.
In 1946, he began teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina
at the invitation of Josef Albers. He also taught in New York at the Art
Students League, New School for Social Research, Pratt Institute, and
in Maine at the Skowhegan School. In 1971, he became a professor of art
at the University of Washington in Seattle where he retired in 1986 as
In the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to paint subjects that referred to
racial and social issues of black Americans, and he has given much financial
aid to organizations addressing these problems. In his later years, he
worked on many commissions including the design of a 72-foot long mural
that will be installed in 2001 in the New York Times Square subway station.
In 1996, a traveling exhibition titled "Jacob Lawrence: The Migration
Series" was held, and it was a narrative of black Americans. The
"Catalogue Raisonne" of his work is being prepared in Seattle
by Peter Nesbett and Michelle DuBois and will be published by the University
of Washington Press.
Lawrence died in Seattle on June 9, 2000. The year before he and his wife
of 59 years, painter Gwendolyn Knight, established a foundation to create
an art center in Harlem named for Lawrence.