Jacob Lawrence: Artist and Historian

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, moving with his family to Harlem in 1930.  There he came into contact with artists such as Augusta Savage, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston – whose WPA studio provided the staging ground for Lawrence to learn about and practice art.  His time in the critical eye began shortly after, with a 1935 group exhibition at the Alston-Bannarn Studios in New York City.  By the time he died, in early June of 2000, Lawrence had been active for over 65 years.

For much of that time, he had the attention of the art critical, and art historical, world.  To be sure, there were dips and swells of interest: his career really took off in 1941, when The Migration Series was displayed in New York City’s Downtown Gallery. There was a resurgence of interest in his work in the 1980s. In many ways Jacob Lawrence – as a modernist painter, as an artist with a socially interested bent, and as a visual storyteller – got his due.

But Lawrence is not just an artist with an interest in the history of African American historical figures.  In fact, he is not just interested in furthering public knowledge of African American historical figures either.  In many ways, Jacob Lawrence is trying to show through his historical series (such as the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, the Harriet Tubman series, the John Brown series, the Frederick Douglass series, and Struggle – From the History of the American People) that African-American history is an essential part of American history.

Years ago, I was just interested in expressing the Negro in American life, but a larger concern, an expression of humanity and of America developed.

–– from the New York Post, 1961

I wanted to show in doing it [his Struggle – From the History of the American People series] how the Negro had participated and to what degree the Negro had participated in American history

––  Interview with Caroll Greene. American Art Archives.


Greene, Caroll.  Interview with Jacob Lawrence.  Smithsonian Archives of
American Art.
10 Oct. 1968.

“Jacob Lawrence.” Dcmooregallery.com, DC Moore Gallery,

Wheat, Ellen Harkins. “Jacob Lawrence and the Legacy of Harlem.” Archives of
American Art    Journal
, vol. 26, no. 1, 1986, pp. 18–25.
JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1557354.


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