Jacob Lawrence (1917 - 2000 )

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, Jacob Lawrence was the son of parents who were traveling North in search of work. While Lawrence was still a young boy, his father abandoned their family; he and his siblings were sent to live in foster care. Then, at age thirteen, he was reunited with his mother and the family relocated to Harlem, New York. It was the Depression and life was more than difficult for the Lawrence family. Jacob Lawrence dropped out of high school and spent much of his time trying to earn money as well as focusing on his growing interest in art.

Lawrence took art training from Charles Alston at the Harlem Community Art Center and it was there that he came in contact with a number of significant black artists including Aaron Douglas and William Johnson.(1) At nineteen he made his first significant foray into the art world by creating a satirical series on street life in Harlem. In the years to follow he would continue with this narrative style of series, creating works chronicling the lives of such important individuals as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

In 1940 Lawrence created “The Migration Series,” a sixty panel series on the subject of the Negro moving from South to North in search of work, as his own parents had, following World War I. It was to become one of his most famous narrative series. He performed the majority of the research for the series at the Schomburg Collection, a repository of Black American history in Harlem, New York.(2)

Lawrence served in the Coast Guard during World War II and was placed on the first racially integrated ship in United States History.(3) After the war, he took a teaching position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He also taught in New York at the Art Students League, The New School for Social Research, Pratt Institute, and at the Skowhegan School in Maine. Finally in 1971, he took a professorship at the University of Washington in Seattle, from which he retired in 1986 as professor emeritus.(4)

Lawrence passed away in Seattle on June 9, 2000, after making important contributions to the world both artistically and financially. Prior to his death, he and his wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight, established foundation to create an art center in Harlem to be named for the artist.(5) In addition, Lawrence contributed frequently throughout his life to any organization that he felt shared his beliefs or made efforts to deal with the racial and social issues facing blacks in America. (EMB)

The Bo-Lo Game

The Bo-Lo Game, 1937, The Collection of The Newark Museum. Purchase 1984 The Members’ Fund. © 2005 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jacob Lawrence is known for his powerful expression of the African American experience.(6) One series in particular, “The Migration of the Negro,” comprised of sixty panels, chronicles the largest passage of blacks since slavery had taken them from Africa. It is the story of the journey of the Negro traveling from South to North in search of work following World War I. The series is made up of sixty paintings, each measuring twelve by eighteen inches and made using a casein tempera on hardboard. A year after their completion, the odd number panels were acquired by the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and the even numbered panels by The Museum of Modern Art in New York.(7)

In contrast to Lawrence’s early narrative works, “The Migration Series” has no single protagonist. To understand it, one must try to comprehend the abstract concepts in Lawrence’s work — metaphor, repetition, and syncopation.(8) Lawrence painted the entire series in a cycle, making detailed foundation drawings and then applying the colors, one at a time, so that colors of the same palette were applied together to all of the panels at once, rather than in sequence, panel by panel. He started with ivory, black, and burnt umber and then moved on to cadmium orange and yellow.(9) He begins and ends the series with scenes of a train station. The first half of the cycle contains interpretations of the South during post World War I America, rural and desperate in appearance. As the cycle moves on we begin to see the urban North, a striking contrast to Lawrence’s representation of the South. Throughout the series Lawrence’s refrain seems to repeat: “And the migrants kept coming.” (10)



(1-5) Biographical information for Jacob Armstead Lawrence. Online. 2002, 15 April 2004 (see link below).

(6-10) Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series from The Phillips Collection (Nashville: The Phillips Collection, 2004).

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