Confrontation on the Bridge
Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence

1917 - 2000

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was an American painter known for his portrayal of African-American historical subjects and contemporary life. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism," an art form popularized in Europe which drew great inspiration from West African and Meso-American art. For his compositions, Lawrence found inspiration in everyday life in Harlem. He brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors. He also taught and spent 16 years as a professor at the University of Washington.

Lawrence is among the best known twentieth-century African-American painters, known for his modernist illustrations of everyday life as well as narratives of African-American history and historical figures. At the age of 23 he gained national recognition with his 60-panel The Migration Series, which depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. The series was purchased jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Lawrence's works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Northwest Art. His 1947 painting The Builders hangs in the White House.

At the very start of his career he developed the approach that made his reputation and remained his touchstone: creating series of paintings that told a story or, less often, depicted many aspects of a subject. His first were biographical accounts of key figures of the African diaspora. He was just 21 years old when his series of 41 paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the revolution of the slaves that eventually gained independence, was shown in an exhibit of African-American artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This was followed by a series of paintings of the lives of Harriet Tubman (1938-39) and Frederick Douglass (1939-40).

His teacher Charles Alston assesses Lawrence's work in an essay for an exhibition at the Harlem YMCA 1938:

Having thus far miraculously escaped the imprint of academic ideas and current vogues in art... he has followed a course of development dictated by his own inner motivations... Working in the very limited medium of flat tempera he achieved a richness and brilliance of color harmonies both remarkable and exciting... Lawrence symbolizes more than anyone I know, the vitality, the seriousness and promise of a new and socially conscious generation of Negro artists.

On July 24, 1941, Lawrence married the painter Gwendolyn Knight, also a student of Savage. She helped prepare the gesso panels for his paintings and contributed to the captions for the paintings in his multi-painting works.

Text courtesy of Wikipedia, 2024