Jacob Lawrence was, without a doubt, one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. His extraordinary talent transcended color barriers while simultaneously asserting his identity and the vitality of his home, Harlem. Renowned for creating lively and impactful scenes, he left an indelible mark on the history of American art with his poignant, modern paintings of African-American life.
After moving from Philadelphia at 13 years old, Jacob Lawrence spent his teenage years in Harlem during the great Harlem Renaissance. He fell in love with art from an early age and spent time in the studios of the renowned artists Charles Alston and Augusta Savage, both of whom were significant figures in the movement inspired by the writings of Alain Locke. During these formative years, the artist studied at the famed Schomburg collection at the 135th Street library, which housed artbooks as well as African art, and was a consistent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the MoMA. A true student of art history, Lawrence often referred to his style as “dynamic cubism,” deeply inspired by both the works of Social Realism and Cubism he saw in these museum institutions.
Although his mother had hoped Lawrence would become a postman, Lawrence, entranced by the cultural explosion of the late Harlem Renaissance, had other ambitions. After dropping out of high school, Lawrence was featured in his first Alston Studio art show in 1935 at the young age of 18. As the first American artist of the 20th century to be classically trained and technically educated in Harlem, his work quickly drew the eye of art critics and scholars.
As Lawrence began to develop his own style, the artist was drawn to the modernist method of blending African and Western art influences in search of a distinctly African American style. He was inspired by historian Charles Seifert to continue exploring motifs of African American history through his work. Lawrence’s depictions of slavery, the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration were all received and studied with enthusiasm. Beyond rendering the plight of oppression many African Americans faced, Lawrence also celebrated Black excellence through colorful and emotional masterpieces. Lawrence thus pulled motifs from African masks, Cezanne’s The Card Players,
Picasso’s geometric cubism
alike in innovative artworks such as Makeup
Lawrence often felt the emotional and psychological burden of assuming the symbolic status as the voice for Black America. Despite struggles with mental health, Lawrence continued to produce artwork on a prolific scale that left an indelible mark on American society. Lawrence was catapulted onto the international stage after presenting the groundbreaking works of the forty-one-panel The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture from 1937 and the sixty-panel The Migration of the Negro from 1940. Not only was Lawrence the first Black artist to have their artworks acquired for the MoMA's permanent collection in 1941, but he was also commissioned by the U.S. government to create paintings for the public works of the New Deal and exhibited widely during his lifetime. Today, Lawrence’s artworks are held in over 200 museum collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art.