Between 1917 and 2000, African American artist Jacob Lawrence created ground-breaking works. The Great Migration is the subject of Lawrence’s Migration Series, which consists of sixty painted panels, and the War Series, which chronicles the tale of the artist’s personal duty in the United States Coast Guard during World War II.
Six million African Americans moved in large numbers from the rural South to the urban North between the years 1916 and 1970, during and after World War I, as a result of Jim Crow segregation laws and the lack of economic opportunities for African Americans in the south. This movement is known as the Great Migration.
Jacob Lawrence elevated the experiences of other outstanding African-Americans in The Migration Series in addition to the Great Migration, providing us with tales of optimism and overcoming adversity.
Both his own life and the experiences of the African Americans he depicted in his art were bright examples of tenacity and achievement. Throughout his childhood and adulthood, they were lights of hope for him, and he worked to ensure that they were given the credit they deserved so that they might continue to motivate others.
Childhood & Early Life
Jacob Lawrence was born to Rosa Lee and Jacob on September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the United States. Geraldine and William were his two siblings.
Following his parents’ separation in 1924, Lawrence and his two younger brothers entered foster care. He reconciled with his mother in Harlem when he was 13 years old.
He spent this time learning arts and crafts at the Utopia Children’s Center. At the age of 16, Lawrence stopped attending school and started working at a laundry and printing facility.
He enrolled in art classes through the Works Progress Administration in 1934. Later, he enrolled in the Harlem Art Workshop, where renowned African American artist Charles Alston instructed him.
Paintings of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian general who oversaw the Haitian Revolution, comprised Jacob Lawrence’s earliest works. The Baltimore Museum of Art displayed these 41 images from 1937 to 1938.
The Harriet Tubman series, which was on display between 1938 and 1939, came next. After that, Lawrence wrote a number of pieces about American social reformer Frederick Douglass.
At the age of 23, he earned national recognition for his work called ‘Migration Series’ (formerly Migration of the Negro) (formerly Migration of the Negro). This 60-panel set of narrative paintings depicted the migration of thousands of African Americans to the north after World War I. These paintings on “Great Migration” were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1938, Lawrence displayed his first ever solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and became the most distinguished African American painters in the country.
In October 1943, after the outbreak of Second World War, he served in the United States Coast Guard. During this time, he continued with his art work and produced 48 paintings, documenting the experience of the war.
In 1946, he taught at the Black Mountain College where he was greatly influenced by the teaching of Josef Albers. Then in 1947, he created his work, ‘The Businessmen’.
The talented artist moved to Washington where he created a series of paintings on the westward journey of George Washington Bush. These images are currently displayed at the State of Washington History Museum.
After many years in New York, he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1970. He taught painting at the prestigious University of Washington there. In 1997, Lawrence illustrated an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables for the university press.
His final public piece, “New York in Transit,” was erected in the Times Square subway station in New York City in 2001. The glass mosaic artwork honours New York City’s variety, as well as its neighbourhoods, cultural life, etc.
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Jacob Lawrence did an enormous amount of historical research in the early years of his profession. He looked for old newspapers, books, memoirs, etc. and turned them into pictures.
He frequently made a series of several different panels, each of which would convey a different story.
He connected his several works with similar colour schemes, recurrent themes, and montage effects.He used flat colours in broad planes to create realistic stories utilising techniques from print media. He accompanied his artworks with extensive, detailed captions.
Awards & Recognitions
The Spingarn Medal was given to Jacob Lawrence by the NAACP in 1970. He joined the National Academy of Design as an associate member the following year.
He was chosen in 1983 to join the esteemed American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was awarded the US National Medal of Arts in 1990.
In 1998, Lawrence was awarded the Washington Medal of Merit, the state’s highest honour.
The Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, and Whitney Museum are just a few renowned museums that currently have his pieces on display in their permanent collections.
The “New York Times” described him as “One of America’s outstanding modern figurative artists” following his passing.
His piece “The Builders” was purchased by the White House Historical Association in 2007 for $2.5 million at an auction. The White House Green Room now has the painting on its walls.
The Migration Series, originally named The Migration of the Negro, is a tempera-painted 60-panel series from 1940–1941 that documents the Great Migration of African–Americans from the rural South to the metropolitan North during World Wars I and II.
Jacob Lawrence: Between 1938 and 1940, tempera paintings of renowned abolitionists and former slaves were created in two series, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, each consisting of 32 and 31 images, respectively.
The Toussaint L’Overture Series, created by Jacob Lawrence in 1938, is a 41-panel series depicted in tempera on paper that depicts the history of the Haitian revolution and its independence from Europe.
Textual explanations are provided alongside the photographs. The Aaron Douglas Collection at the Armistad Research Center in New Orleans is where you may find this collection.