Portrait of Jacob Lawrence in black and white

Jacob Lawrence: 9 Things You Should Know About the Artist

Meet the artist and understand his legacy

By Zoe Fortin

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000) is one of the great American artists of the 20th century. Through his paintings, he had a seminal impact on how modern narrative art can shape and inform the world. A master storyteller, his art has left a legacy equal to any other prominent artist of the period.

In November 2018, The Businessmen sold at Sotheby’s for $6.17 million, establishing a new record for the artist, as if to prove Lawrence’s lasting relevancy. At the 2017 Armory Show, we proudly presented Jacob Lawrence’s Dynamic Cubism, a celebration commemorating the anniversary of his 100th birth year. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue, including an essay by Michelle DuBois.

Below, we share nine facts to help navigate his prolific career. Whether you are familiar with Lawrence’s body of work, or stumbling upon his genius for the first time, we hope you will find something special and meaningful.

1. He was greatly influenced by Harlem

In this painting by Jacob Lawrence, a busy street corner of Harlem is depicted in grey and red tones.
Jacob Lawrence, Harlem Street Scene, 1942. Gouache on paper, 22 ¼ x 22 ¾ inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private collection. © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

While he spent the earliest part of his life in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, Jacob Lawrence was greatly influenced by Harlem, where he moved at age 13. It is in Harlem that Lawrence was first introduced to the arts, where his mother signed him up for classes at the Utopia Children’s Center. Although he was too young to experience the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence admired notables such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, and described the 1930s as “a wonderful period,[1]” laying the foundation for “a real vitality in the community.” Harlem inspired many paintings, such as Harlem Street Scene, which provides a panoramic view of street corner.

2. Charles Alston and Augusta Savage were among his mentors

Lawrence attended Charles Alston’s classes at the Harlem Art Workshop; it was a “very important period,[1]”  said Lawrence who learned that “what [he] was doing, the way [he] was seeing had validity, it was very valid.” It was also Alston who encouraged Lawrence to join the Harlem Community Art Center, where classes were led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. “She was a mentor of many of us in the Harlem community,[2]” recalled Lawrence, “I was one of those fortunate enough to have her take an interest in me. She felt that I had the talent.”  Savage encouraged Lawrence to get a job with the Federal Art Project where, at just 21, he “was making a fabulous salary of $23.86 a week.[3]”

3. His work celebrated the heroes of Black History

In his twenties, Lawrence took a particular interest in portraying uncelebrated heroes from African-American history. After conducting research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library[1], the artist created a series of paintings depicting the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture. Completed in 1938, the work was followed by a series of paintings about the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a series about the life of Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, and a series exploring the life and legacy of abolitionist John Brown, completed in 1941.

4. He described his style as Dynamic Cubism

Colorful painting by Jacob Lawrence showing red, blue and yellow shapes forming characters
Jacob Lawrence, Playthings, 1961. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private collection. © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“My first content was not figurative,” said Jacob Lawrence, “it was just designs, working with color and seeing color move about and just getting the pleasure of moving color on a flat surface.[1]” For most of his career however, Lawrence’s style was figurative. Even as he witnessed the rise of Abstract Expressionism and his peers’ shift to abstract painting as a solution to escape “black art,” Lawrence’s work remained representational. Characterized by unusual angles and dynamic fragmentation, Lawrence’s style kept an intense focus on color, including bold juxtapositions of tones. Playthings is an example of these components, which he referred to as Dynamic Cubism.

5. He is most famous for The Migration Series

The sixty-panel masterpiece, executed when Lawrence was 23, chronicles the resettlement of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North after World War II. “I think the motivation for painting The Migration Series is that I grew up in a period where we all knew about it,” said Lawrence, “we were a part of it, my family was a part of that migration.[1]” Originally titled The Migration of the Negro, the series ends with the words “And the migrants kept coming” and was later acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

6. Fame and recognition came early

Black and white photograph showing Edith Halpert's gallery in 1941, with some of Jacob Lawrence's works hung on the walls
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, exhibited at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York, 1941. Harmon Foundation Collection, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. Artwork: © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The year 1941 represents a turning point for the artist’s career. That year, the magazine Fortune published a portfolio of twenty-six of The Migration Series paintings—unprecedented exposure for an African-American artist. Shortly after, Edith Halpert invited the artist to show his Migration Series in her Downtown Gallery, marking the first time that a black artist was represented by a New York gallery. The following year, The Migration Series became the first artwork by an African-American artist to be purchased by The Museum of Modern Art.

7. His years in the Navy changed his work

Black and white photograph showing Jacob Lawrence showing one of his paintings to six men in navy uniforms, gathered around him
Courtesy United States Coast Guard. Artwork: © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Lawrence was drafted in 1943. He was assigned to the public relations department, allowing him to paint. Deployed to India, Spain and Italy, he often depicted the scenes he witnessed, such as Naples1944. While he experienced harsh racial experiences in the army, he also lived in an unsegregated social setting for the first time, on the Navy’s first racially integrated ship. As a result, “for a period of years after the war, more white people appear in his compositions,[1]” notes Michelle Dubois. These years are also marked by scenes of “reconstruction, reconciliation, reunions and renewal,” such as The Lovers, showing the lasting impact the war had on Lawrence.

8. He was a teacher

Painting in gouache by Jacob Lawrence, showing two black figures embracing on a bright green couch, against a bright yellow background
Jacob Lawrence, The Lovers, 1946. Gouache on paper, 21 ½ x 30 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private collection. © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In 1946, Lawrence became the first African-American artist to teach at Black Mountain College, following Josef Albers’ invitation. Traveling to North Carolina with his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, he was provided with private transportation to avoid segregation past the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1968, Lawrence taught at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a renowned summer residency counting Alex Katz, Lee Bontecou and Robert Indiana among its alumni. In parallel, Lawrence began teaching at Pratt Institute in 1956, where he remained on faculty until 1970. A year later, he accepted a professorship at the University of Washington, where he taught until his retirement in 1983.

9. He represented the United States at the 1956 Venice Biennale

Colorful work by Jacob Lawrence showing a scene between men in army and navy uniforms and restaurant servers
Jacob Lawrence, Naples-1944, painted in 1947. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private collection. © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In 1956, Lawrence was one of thirty artists selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. The country’s pavilion, curated by Katherine Kuh, was themed “American Artists Paint the City” and featured artists with specific connections to urban centers. Lawrence’s Chess on Broadway was included in the presentation, alongside works by Charles Sheeler and Jackson Pollock, among others.

Cover image: Jacob Lawrence, 1957 / Alfredo Valente papers, 1941-1978. Artwork: © 2018 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

1. Leslie King-Hammond, “Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-class Community,” in Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Dubois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), p. 69.
2. Jacob Lawrence in a tape-recorded interview with Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Seattle, Washington, October 3, 1992, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection
3. Jacob Lawrence in a tape-recorded interview with Jackson Frost, Seattle, Washington, April 2000, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection
4. Jacob Lawrence in a tape-recorded interview with Jackson Frost, Seattle, Washington, April 2000, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection
5. Now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
6. Jacob Lawrence in a tape‐recorded interview with Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Seattle, Washington, October 3, 1992, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection
7. Jacob Lawrence in a tape‐recorded interview with Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Seattle, Washington, October 3, 1992, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection
8. “Hidden Histories in the Works of Jacob Lawrence,” copyright © 2017 Michelle DuBois, Ph.D.