Jacob Lawrence, Foremost American Painter

Table of Contents Previous Next

"Perhaps the most prominent American painter alive today and the foremost African-American artist in our history."

--Jerome Silbergeld, UW School of Art

"By using outline drawing and a crisp-edged medium, Lawrence accentuates the taut, ribbony contours of the scenes he depicts, at the same time giving his art one of its more distinctive traits." footnote 1

It has been said that the paintings of Jacob Lawrence "have a way of delivering a jolt to even the most complacent museum-goer." footnote 1 The human figures and objects in his pictures are designed using bold, flat patches of color. His compositions, often built on a diagonal framework, thrust their elements forward and out of a compressed space, using "strong, hard-edged shapes of unpredictable, unmodulated, intense color." footnote 2 His creations are expressionistic in style, cubist in form, and social in content.

Lawrence attributes his fascination with vivid patterns of color to the days of his youth, growing up in Harlem during the grim years of the Great Depression. "Our homes were very decorative, full of a lot of pattern…all this color…. Because we were so poor, the people used this as a means of brightening their life." footnote 1 His interest in art was stimulated at the age of 12, when he was sent by his mother to a program at a settlement house, where, besides hot lunches, he received training in arts and crafts. A teacher there, Charles Alston, kept the young Jacob busy working with poster paint on wrapping paper, making papier-mache masks, decorating the insides of cardboard boxes to make street scenes.

A 1987 article in the Smithsonian magazine recounts the early influences on the developing artist. Alston converted his studio on West 141st Street into a neighborhood workshop, which became a cultural gathering place for artists in Harlem--the poets Claude McKay and Langston Hughes; critic and philosopher Alan Locke; sculptor Augusta Savage. Lawrence rented a portion of that studio, where he went to paint, and to listen. Also during this time, he would walk some 60 blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to study and ponder the techniques of the masters.footnote 3

The earliest paintings that survive from Lawrence's youth date from the time he was 19 years old and depict "both the sordidness and the kick and vitality of life" in the streets of Harlem.footnote 3 A collection of some 150 of Lawrence's paintings, including some of these earliest works, toured the country in 1986-87 in a retrospective entitled Jacob Lawrence, American Painter. The tour was organized by the Seattle Art Museum and debuted in Seattle; the collection subsequently was exhibited in Oakland, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Dallas, and New York. The accompanying catalog by the same name, by Ellen Harkins Wheat, represents the first comprehensive survey of the work of the artist.footnote 3

Throughout his career, Lawrence has worked predominantly with water-based media applied on paper or hardboard panels. Lawrence's preference for these materials stems from his earliest experiences with art, from the inexpensive poster paints of his youth.

He has developed a narrative style, often assembling a series of paintings or panels to tell a story in art. His exploration, for example, of the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the slave revolt that brought independence to Haiti, resulted in a series of 41 paintings in tempera on paper. His approach to creating such a series of panels is systematic, resembling that of a carpenter or craftsman. First, the outline of the scene is drawn in pencil. Then, starting with the darkest color, he applies paint to particular areas of all the panels. He repeats this procedure with every color, until all outlines have been filled in, so that the pictures are finished simultaneously, achieving a unity of color and tone within the entire array. footnote 1comma footnote 3

Other series have dealt with Frederick Douglass, famous black orator and writer, and Harriet Tubman, a slave who became a famous organizer of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves to reach freedom in the North. His 60-panel series on The Migration of the Negro, depicting the gradual movement of Blacks during the early 20th century from farms in the south to cities in the north, received national attention in the early 1940s. Some 26 of the panels were reproduced in Fortune magazine. Notes Robert Wernick in the Smithsonian: "It was the first time a national publication had paid so much attention to the movement of millions of black people, or devoted so much space to the work of a black artist."

A love of good tools and a reverence for building are dominant and recurring themes in Lawrence's work. In a 1977 self-portrait of the artist in his studio, the surroundings are reminiscent of a carpenter's workroom: artist as builder, as craftsman. The term "carpenter cubism" has been used to describe Lawrence's unique artistic form.footnote 1

As a teacher, Lawrence has inspired generations of students. "Lawrence's commitment to teaching began almost as early as his commitment to painting," footnote 4 writes art historian Peter Nesbett, who with Patricia Hills has produced a catalog on the artist's graphic works, published by UW Press. In 1946, Lawrence taught with Josef Albers at the famous Black Mountain College. And beginning in 1955, he taught at the Pratt Institute in New York, and at various institutions around the country. In 1971, he accepted the post of professor of art at the UW. Reflects Nesbett:

"As a professor, he set a standard for self-effacing modesty. He remained remarkably accessible, one of the few University professors to keep a working studio in the School of Art building. Students witnessed his commitment to his craft firsthand, catching glimpses of the artist's creative laboratory as they passed in the hall." After his retirement in 1985, Lawrence continued to lecture occasionally in art history seminars and studio art classes.

Among his many honors, Lawrence was elected in 1983 to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1990, and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. And in 1994, the UW School of Art named the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in his honor.

The Gallery is an exhibition space in the School of Art building where student and faculty works are displayed. The gesture "secures the memory of his contribution to the University for generations to come of students, faculty, and staff," notes Nesbett. "The naming of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery is a tribute to a man whose spirit graces us all."

  1. "Jacob Lawrence: Art Builder," Amy Fine Collins, Art in America, February, 1988, p. 130.
  2. David C. Driskell, quoted in "Clarence Major Interviews: Jacob Lawrence, The Expressionist," The Black Scholar, November 1977, p. 14.
  3. "Jacob Lawrence: art as seen through a people's history," Robert Wernick, Smithsonian, 18(3), 57 (1987).
  4. "The Ubiquitous Jacob Lawrence," Peter Nesbett, 1995.
  5. We thank Pat Scott and the Francine Seders Gallery, Ltd., for information and assistance they provided in the preparation of this vignette.

Table of Contents Previous Next