Jacob Armstead Lawrence
(1917 - 2000)
Jacob Armstead Lawrence was active/lived in New York, New Jersey. Jacob Lawrence is known for modernist naive urban genre-figure painting.
Jacob Armstead Lawrence
click to hear
Biography from the Archives of askART
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.
Biography from the Archives of askART
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 social-realist culmination of the art of the 1930s and not a harbinger of new styles.
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
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.
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 Harriet Tubman.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mathew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey of
parents who had migrated north from Virginia and South Carolina. His
father, a railroad cook, disppeared when he was only seven, but his
mother was able to support him although she was on welfare a good part
of the time. He was the oldest of three children. He spent some time in
foster care in Philadelphia after his father abandoned the family and
finally settled with his mother in Harlem. He lost both siblings at an
early age. His brother William died of an overdose of drugs and his
sister Geraldine of tuberculosis.
Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
When Lawrence was twelve, his
mother sent him to a program at Utopia House where he encountered
artist Charles Alston, who taught art and made Jacob aware of color and
picturing the life around him. He rented studio space from
whose studio had become a neighborhood workshop, a gathering place and
debating club for the Harlem cultural world. Often he would walk
fifty-odd blocks downtown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and study
the Old Masters. He painted as much as he could. The
to survive date from 1936, when he was thirteen. His first works
done in poster paints because they were cheapest, but he later
egg tempera, casein tempera made with curdled milk, and gouache.
these are water-based paints applied on paper or on gesso-coated
hardboard panels. His style of painting lends itself to
the simplest way to handle that was by making a series of pictures,
something he did whenever he came upon a subject of epic proportions.
have called Lawrence "the top US Negro Painter", a race-conscious title
that tends to blur his individual style. Lawrence tells simple,
straightforward stories with a lack of complexity that makes him
something of a puzzle. He married a fellow painter, Gwendolyn Knight.
got on the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project at $23.86
a week during the Depression in 1938. He was on the Project for 18
months, and when it was over he was able to consider himself a
full-fledged professional artist. His career flourished but the war
caught up with him in 1943 when he was drafted into the Coast Guard and
given the rank of steward's mate. The good luck that has dogged his
career brought him a commanding officer who appreciated his talent and
arranged to get him a post as a combat artist.
Out of service in
1945, Lawrence found himself almost a celebrity. His work was selling
well; he won prizes and received a Guggenheim fellowship. He was asked
to do book illustrations, and he was asked to teach at Black Mountain
College where many big names of the American avant-garde were found. In
1949 he checked into a mental institution where he remained for eight
months, meanwhile producing a series called Hospital.
1950 he had been a popular teacher at Pratt Institute, at Brandeis
University and other schools. In 1964 he spent eight months in Nigeria
painting. In 1971 he was invited to be professor of art at the
University of Washington in Seattle; he retired in 1987, but he
remained in Seattle and he did some occasional teaching. He died of
lung cancer on June 9, 2000.
Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.
Article by Robert Wernick in Smithsonian Magazine
"Commitment on Canvas" by Avis Berman in Modern Maturity Magazine, August-September 1986
Time Magazine, February 24, 1061
:Jacob Lawrence, Portrait of a Serial Painter" by Stephen Wallis in Art & Antiques Magazine, December 1996
From the internet, Electric Library
Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City and came of age in Harlem during the Great Depression.
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
During the 1930s, Lawrence received early artistic training under Charles Alston at the Utopia Children's Center in Harlem, and the Harlem Art Workshops at 135th Street Public Library and 306 West 141st Street, which were run by Augusta Savage. Both Alston and Savage encouraged Lawrence in his studies and helped him secure scholarships for art classes and steady employment as an easel painter for the WPA (1938-40).
Inspired by everyday life in Harlem and the history of African-Americans in the United States, Lawrence developed a distinctive style of narrative painting featuring a flattened picture plane and boldly colored figures. In 1937, Lawrence began a narrative suite based on the life of the Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture. He would eventually go on to create nine narrative series based on African-American life and heroes, including the now-famous series, "Migration of the Negro".
In 1941 Lawrence joined the roster of artists at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, a leading gallery specializing in American art, and gained widespread recognition in 1944 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized the first traveling exhibition of his "Migration" series. The theme of migration continued to be an important subject for Lawrence, but he also represented African-Americans at work and play, and at home and abroad.
Jacob Lawrence lived and worked in Seattle, Washington with his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, until his death in 2000. In 2000, The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation was established to serve as an educational resource on the art of Lawrence and his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, and a catalogue raisonné was published, documenting over 900 of Jacob Lawrence's paintings, drawings, and murals.
Share an image of the Artist firstname.lastname@example.org.