Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917 – 2000), one of the most famous African American artists to emerge in history, was a painter that was known for his paintings inspired by the city of Harlem and the black experience. He described his style with the term “dynamic cubism”, taking cues from the shapes and colors of Harlem. The juxtaposition of darker browns and blacks with brighter, vibrant colors was the characteristic that became his signature. He worked mainly with tempura and gouache, which are water-based paints.
Growing up, Lawrence was received encouragement from his mother and instructors to create. Dropping out of school at 16 years old, he began to turn his focus to studying and making art. He was able to build relationships with other Harlem Renaissance artists such as Charles Alston and Henry Bannam. He also took classes at the Harlem Community Art Center which was led by sculptor, Augusta Savage. She helped Lawrence receive funding for school and get employment. By his early twenties, he was already making waves in the art world with his series of paintings about the lives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Toussaint L’Ouverture. His Migration Series, a sixty-panel set of paintings which narrate the migration of African Americans from the south to the north, brought him national recognition at only 23 years old. He went on to have a lengthy painting career, which turned to teaching in his later years, up until his death in June 2000.
Today, his work can be seen in several museums throughout the country including the Phillips Collection here in DC. His latest public work is the mosaic mural titled New York Transit is installed in the Times Square subway station in New York City.
**My thoughts: I actually got to see some of his work in the Phillips Collection one year, it’s really amazing to see the work of a famous artist in person. For those that may not dig the simplistic style of Lawrence’s work I have to say that one thing that’s good about it is that it is approachable. When I was at the show I mentioned, there were classes of kids there learning about his work and the events he depicted about slavery and the black experience. They were able to learn what was going on from his pieces just as an adult could. So it says something that his work is still able to impact others generations after him.