Jacob Lawrence’s Lifeboat (1945)

Jacob Lawrence. Lifeboat. 1945. Opaque watercolor over graphite. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of the Art Committee of the Women’s Cooperative Civic League, BMA 1946.135. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1944 the Board of the Cooperative Women’s Civic League voted to purchase a picture by an African-American artist for “our Art Museum.”1  BMA Director Adelyn Breeskin shared her wish list with Vivian Cook, chair of the organization’s art committee. In order of preference the museum was seeking a Jacob Lawrence, Ellis Wilson or Hale Woodruff.2 Cook quickly followed up with a local gallery in Washington D.C. but the Civic League needed more time to raise the necessary funds. Cook took up the task again in 1945, once the funds were in hand. That year Jacob Lawrence was exhibiting his series on legendary abolitionist John Brown, a nineteenth century advocate of armed insurrection to overthrow slavery. But Cook and Breeskin agreed none of the illustrated works on view were right for the museum.3  After a bit more searching and a trip to the Downtown Gallery in New York, Breeskin suggested Lifeboat. She described the painting as a “work to be reckoned with” and “a major contribution to our collections.”4

Lifeboat shows two sailors lowering a small boat. It is one of about fifty canvases that Lawrence created after being drafted into the military. Like most of Lawrence’s paintings, it is somewhat abstract in style. When he painted Lifeboat, Lawrence was posted to the USS Sea Cloud (IX-99). He had joined the ship as part of an experimental integration policy, which also promoted him in rank so he could serve as a combat artist.

The painting has been exhibited four times at the BMA since its acquisition, in 1946, 1950, 1990 and 1996. For several years in the 1960s the painting was exhibited in federal offices in Washington D.C.


[1] Minutes from the meeting of the board for the Cooperative Women’s Civic League. July 7, 1944. Vivian Johnson Cook Papers, Box 191-36 Folder 14.

[2]  Letter from Adelyn Breeskin to Vivian Cook. October 17, 1945. Vivian Johnson Cook Papers, Box 191-19 Folder.

[3] Letter from Adelyn Breeskin to Vivian Cook. April 11, 1946. Vivian Johnson Cook Papers, Box 191-19 Folder

[4] Letter from Adelyn Breeskin to Vivian Cook. July 12, 1946. Lifeboat Accessions Records. Baltimore Museum of Art Archives.

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