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Fri, 09.07.1917

Jacob Lawrence, Artist and Educator born

Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence, a Black artist, and educator, was born on this date in 1917.

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, NJ, and was 13 when he moved with his family to New York City.  He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop in New York City from 1934 to 1936, when he won a scholarship to the American Artists School in the same city.   He was in his 20s when his "Migration Series" made him nationally famous.  The series depicted the epic Great Migration of Blacks from the rural South to the urban North in the 20th century.

Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African America.  He is famous for his narrative series--dozens of paintings on a single historical figure or topic--generally portray people or periods important to Black histories, such as abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglass.  Lawrence's simplified graphic forms draw from various artistic traditions, including expressionism and cubism. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism," though by his own account, the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem.

Among his famous works are The Harriet Tubman Series (30 panels) and The Great Migration Series (60 panels). Lawrence also illustrated a collection of Aesop's fables and produced posters for the 1972 Olympic Games. He wrote and illustrated Harriet and the Promised Land, a children's book of verse about Harriet Tubman.

Lawrence was honored as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian when the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1970 for his outstanding achievements. In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a major retrospective of his work, and in 1983, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 1998 he received Washington State's highest honor, The Washington Medal of Merit. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of the Arts in 1990.

His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. In May 2007, the White House Historical Association (via the White House Acquisition Trust) purchased Lawrence's The Builders (1947) for $2.5 million at auction. The painting now hangs in the White House Green Room.  He was among the best-known 20th-century African American painters, a distinction he shared with Romare Bearden.

He continued to paint until a few weeks before his death at eighty-two, he was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight.  When Lawrence died on June 9, 2000, the New York Times called him "one of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African American experience."   His last public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.

To be an Artist



A History of African American Artists from 1792 to Present
By Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Copyright 1993 by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Pantheon Books, NY
ISBN 0-394-57016-2

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