Jacob Lawrence

As part of our Studio we were asked to look at an artist and one of their images.  The work I chose was from a series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence. 

Jacob Lawrence ( 1917 – 2000)


Between 1915 and 1920 as many as one million African Americans moved from the rural south to the northern cities, in what became known as the Great Migration.  During this milieu of mass migration and the depression of the 1920s and 30s black culture was able to flourish, culminating in the Harlem Renaissance.

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 and moved to Harlem, New York City, in 1924 with his mother and siblings, it was here that Jacob Lawrence was first involved with art and others artists,  He eventually, in the late 1930s, was one of many artists who were employed and trained by the Federal Arts Projects in New York.

The art work that first drew my attention is from his migration series, I like the simplicity and use of colour, though it portrays much more.



“The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South”

The Migration of the Negro Series, panel no.57, (1940-1941).

Casein tempura on hardboard, (45.7 cm x 30.5 cm)

This relatively small sized painting on hardboard is part of the Migration of the Negro series (1940 -41),  in which Lawrence uses his own distinctive style of Visual Narrative to depict the mass migration of blacks from the South in a 60 panel series.

The Great Migration was not just an economic but also a social and cultural event, in which millions of African Americans took over control of their own lives which had been denied them in the South.  From an early age Jacob Lawrence had been surrounded by family and community stories of the Migration, giving the series as a whole a genuine authenticity that is clearly apparent.

 “ I don’t think in terms of history about that series. I think in terms of contemporary life. It was such a part of me that I didn’t think of something outside. It was like I was doing a portrait of something. If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers. “  Jacob Lawrence

Although black women did want to migrate North, they were paid such poor wages that it would take them much longer to have enough money to move, frequently husbands moved ahead of their wives and families until they had enough money for the whole family to migrate.

Lawrence called his style “dynamic cubism”, although the figures in most of his paintings tend to be quite static like even though you can see there is movement.  The simplicity and restraint in the images portray more to the viewer than if further details were included. 

In this image, Lawrence portrayed a woman engaged in her work at a commercial laundry. She is washing clothes. Rugs and blankets hang behind her. The red handle of the woman’s washing stick creates the painting’s focal point and divides the composition down the centre,  it is a dense and well balanced composition, suggesting a resilience and perseverance that is an underlying theme in this series.  

He said about this work in 1945  “The human subject is the most important thing.  My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed, but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content… [I] want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away”

I think he has achieved this goal admirably in this painting in its own right and most certainly when viewed as intended as part of a series.




Author Unknown, “Jacob Lawrence”. n.d. American Art, Vol 8, No. 3/4 (Summer – Autumn 1994), pp 134-136.  23rd March 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109178&gt;

Harkins Wheat, Ellen.  “Jacob Lawrence and the Legacy of Harlem”. Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1  (1986), pp. 18-25.  The Smithsonian Institution. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1557354>

Powell, Richard J.  “Jacob Lawrence: Keep on Movin’”.  American Art, Vol. 15, No. 1  (Spring, 2001), pp. 90-93.  The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109375>

Johnson,David.  “Important Cities in Black History: Atlanta to Washington, DC: landmarks in African-American history”. n.d. FactMonster Database, Pearson Education, Inc. 23rd March 2003. <http://www.factmonster.com/spot/bhmcities1.html&gt;

Nesbett, Peter T, DuBois, M, Hills, POver the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence.  United States, 2001.

Author: Dorothy de Lautour

Dorothy graduated with a degree in Design and Visual Arts (Contemporary Craft - Jewellery) at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand. She was selected as an exhibitor for Objectspace's "Best in Show - 2012" and has exhibited in Wellington for NZ Academy of Fine Arts and in Auckland at Lopdell House.

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