Jacob Lawrence's nativity scene with the holy family standing on the left and chickens in the foreground.

Jacob Lawrence's "Nativity" scene

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to parents who recently migrated north following the first World War. Lawrence spent time in foster care in Philadelphia after his father abandoned the family when he was only seven years old. In 1930, he joined his mother in Harlem where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. The flourishing of culture seen in the arts, literature, music, and politics helped to shape Lawrence’s voice as a socially conscious artist.

As a child, Lawrence met his mentor Charles Alston at the Utopia Children’s House, an art program for children of working mothers. He painted nonfigurative geometric designs, papier-mâché masks, and three-dimensional tableaux in small boxes. Several years later, he would continue working with Alston and Henry Bannarn at Studio 306, an art center partially funded by the Works Projects Administration. The studio became a meeting place for writers, actors, artists and musicians. Here Lawrence would have some of his first exhibitions.

In the spring of 1941, Lawrence worked simultaneously on the 60 panels of The Migration of the Negro. Artist Gwendolyn Knight assisted him, preparing the gesso panels and helping to write the captions. The two were married later that year. This series launched Lawrence onto the national stage at the young age of 24. Fortune magazine reproduced twenty-six of the images and The Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection in Washington vied for ownership of the series, ultimately dividing the paintings evenly between them. By the end of 1941, Lawrence joined the Downtown Gallery, becoming the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York gallery.

When he joined the Coast Guard in 1943, Lawrence was the most celebrated African American artist in the country. The Navy allowed Lawrence to continue painting with the stipulation that he depicted Coast Guard Life. The resulting works were part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

During the 1950s, Lawrence experimented with a new body of work, exploring the theme of performance. With a Downtown Gallery employee, Lawrence visited theatrical productions, mainly in Harlem during the early 1950s for inspiration. As Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins states in her essay, “The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence’s Early Works, 1938-1952,” “The paintings on the theme of performance are highly decorative and more than any prior group display Lawrence’s mode of abstraction with a heightened sense of emotionalism that makes for riveting and beautifully unsettling imagery. These works were produced from his memories of performances at the Apollo Theater on Harlem’s 125th Street.” (Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, “The The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence’s Early Works, 1938-1952,” in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001], p. 131)

At first glance, Nativity appears as a decidedly nonpolitical depiction of a familiar biblical story – the birth of Jesus in a manger. Arranged in a stage-like setting, the holy family is rendered as African American. They surround a group of blue chickens in a wooden manger, which are guarded by three oversized roosters, perhaps a reference to the three wise men. The exaggerated points of the roosters’ combs evoke the familiar crown on the Statue of Liberty, suggesting the promise of hope in the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Michelle DuBois, Ph.D., scholar and co-author of the Jacob Lawrence catalogue raisonné, states the following in her essay Hidden Histories in the Works of Jacob Lawrence, “The concept of Nativity, the birth, the theatrical presentation and the mutability of identity of the subjects renders this painting very dense in meanings.” (Michelle DuBois, Jacob Lawrence’s Dynamic Cubism: A Centennial Celebration [New York: Jonathan Boos, 2017], p. 15) Nativity may depict a dramatic, or musical performance of the biblical story, with its dramatic depiction of light and shadows cast by the figures and animals.

Nativity was painted in 1954 – the year of the landmark decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. The Supreme Court’s ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement. Despite the anticipated changes the ruling promised, skepticism was felt among the African American community. Lawrence’s stylistic use of fractured, sharp, and shard-like lines reflects the charged racial environment of the period.

Cover image: Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000. Nativity, 1954, egg tempera on board, 9 x 12 inches. Signed and dated lower right.