Racial Frontiers

Jacob Lawrence’s Expressive Cubism

Self portrait, Jacob Lawrence

When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it.
Jacob Lawrence
Artist Jacob Lawrence

Artist Jacob Lawrence

Artist Jacob Lawrence developed a distinctive style influenced by Pablo Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism, which largely shaped his style, known as Expressive Cubism after 1940. Having spent his formative years in Harlem, Lawrence provided social commentary on race in the United States through depictions of the lived experiences of African Americans and African American history.

In 1970, Lawrence was at the peak of his career. The NAACP presented him with its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal; Lawrence was the first artist to receive the honor. That same year, the UW invited him to join the faculty as a Visiting Professor.

He and his wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight, moved west to Seattle and a next chapter in a brilliant career. The gray skies and waters of the Pacific Northwest influenced a shift from prismatic to tonal color in Lawrence’s style, and he soon became engaged in a number of local collaborations. He became tenured faculty in the School of Art in 1971 and taught until 1985, and the School’s gallery was named after him in 1994.

Lawrence contributed several works of public art to the University of Washington and the City of Seattle, as well as creating the five-painting George Washington Bush series- depicting the African American man’s journey from the Midwest to Puget Sound–displayed at the State Capital Museum for several years. He designed posters for the Seattle Arts Festival Bumbershoot and the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair as well as the Games mural for the Kingdome.

Jacob Lawrence also advocated for public art funding in Olympia, making him the most prominent advocate of public art in Washington State.

1976 Bumbershoot poster (jacobandgwenlawrence.org)

1976 Bumbershoot poster (jacobandgwenlawrence.org)

Additional Resources