Jacob Lawrence

20th Century American Master



Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) is among the best-known 20th century African American painters, a distinction shared with Romare Bearden.

Though he referred to his style as "dynamic cubism," he also said his primary influence were the shapes and colors of Harlem.

Lawrence was only in his twenties when his Migration Series made him nationally famous. The series depicted the epic Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. It was featured Fortune Magazine in 1941.

The series was the subject of a solo show at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan in 1941, making Lawrence the first black artist represented by a major commerical art gallery.

Lawrence married fellow artist, painter, Gwendolyn Knight in 1941. They remained married until his death in 2000.



The NAACP honored Lawrence as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian and awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1970. 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.

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."


Lawrence Paints History

Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans and important periods in history.


The artist was twenty-one years old when his series of paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture were shown in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This impressive work was followed by a series of paintings of the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series of pieces about the abolitionist John Brown.


Lawrence was only twenty-three when he completed the sixty-panel set of narrative paintings entitled "Migration of the Negro," now called "The Migration Series." Interest in the series was so intense, The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and New York's Museum of Modern Art agreed to divide the series.



Harriet Tubman by Jacob Lawrence




Lawrence spent months on the Migration Series. He distilled the subject into captions and preliminary drawings and prepared 60 boards with the help of his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight.

He created the paintings in tempera, a water-based paint that dries rapidly. To keep the colors consistent, Lawrence applied one hue at a time to every painting where it was to appear, requiring him to plan all 60 paintings in detail at once.


SEE John Brown Series



Migration Series, Panel 1. 1941 caption: During the World War, there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.



Print No. 13, from The Legend of John Brown; 1977

Print No. 17 from The Legend of John Brown; 1978


The Early Years

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He moved with his sister and brother to New York City at 13. His mother enrolled him in classes at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem. An art teacher there noticed great potential in Lawrence.

He dropped out of school at 16 and went to work at a laundry and a printing plant. More importantly, Lawrence attended classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by the African American artist, Charles Alston. Alston urged him to also attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage secured Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration. There, he was able to study and work with such notable Harlem Renaissance artists as Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn in the Alston-Bannarn workshop.

Lawrence married painter Gwendolyn Knight, who had also been a student of Savage's, on July 24, 1941. While in Harlem, he also met Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Claude McKay and became steeped in black history and culture.


The Shoemaker, Jacob Lawrence, 1945, gouache on paper


The Seamstress, Jacob Lawrence, 1946, gouache on paper


Lawrence serves in USCG and settles in Seattle

In October 1943 - during the Second World War - he enlisted in the U. S. Coast Guard and served with the first racially integrated crew on the USCGC Sea Cloud, under Carlton Skinner. He painted and sketched while in the Coast Guard.

In 1962, the couple visited Nigeria for a exhibition of the Migration Series. That trip inspired Lawrence and his wife to sell their house in Brooklyn, and return to Nigeria in 1964. They stayed there from April to November, while he painted his "Nigerian" series.

In 1970 Lawrence settled in Seattle, Washington and became an art professor at the University of Washington. Some of his works are now displayed there. The piece in the main lobby of Meany Hall, entitled "Theatre," was commissioned by the University for the hall in 1985.

The artist also did a series of five paintings on the westward journey of African American pioneer, George Washington Bush. These paintings are now in the collection of the State of Washington History Museum.

He illustrated an adaptation of Aesop's Fables for the University of Washington Press in 1997. Lawrence taught at several schools, and continued to paint until a few weeks before his death in June 2000, at the age of eighty-two. 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. His wife died several years later in 2005.

In addition to his many other awards, Lawrence received Washington State's highest honor, The Washington Medal of Merit in 1988. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990.


From the Nigerian Series


Street in Mbari, Jacob Lawrence, 1964, gouache on paper


Lawrence collections include The White House

His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the Brooklyn Museum. In May 2007, the White House Historical Association purchased Lawrence's The Builders (1947) for $2.5 million at auction. The painting now hangs in the White House Green Room.

The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation was formally established before his death. Today, it maintains a searchable archive of nearly 1,000 images of their work.

The Seattle Art Museum offers the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, a $10,000 award to "individuals whose original work reflects the Lawrences' concern for artistic excellence, education, mentorship and scholarship within the cultural contexts and value systems that informed their work and the work of other artists of color.