Jacob Lawrence’s Toussaint L’Overture Series

Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world…I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing.

Gallery, Contemporary Negro Art exhibition, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1939Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Exhibitions Series. AN006_044. The photo shows the display of the Toussaint L’Ouverture series in the 1939 exhibition. On the table is Henry Wilmer Bannarn’s sculpture ColtArtworks © of the artist’s estate.

Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world…I didn’t do it [the series] just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing.1

Between 1936 and 1938, Jacob Lawrence produced forty-one intimately-scaled tempera paintings about General Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved leader of the Haitian independence movement. This was the first of Lawrence’s many painted historical series, for which he usually composed descriptive captions to help explain the narrative. Number 20 in the L’Ouverture series shares: “General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks.” Number 36 states: “During the truce Toussaint is deceived and arrested by LeClerc. LeClerc led Toussaint to believe that he was sincere, believing that when Toussaint was out of the way, the Blacks would surrender.” Number 41 articulates “Desalines was crowned Emperor October 4, 1804, thus: Jean Jacques the First of Haiti. Desalines, standing beside a broken chain, was dictator – as opposed to Toussaint’s more liberal leadership.”

The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture was prominently featured in the BMA’s 1939 exhibit – filling an entire gallery and garnering much public attention. It opens with Christopher Columbus landing in Haiti in the fifteenth century and delves into Haiti’s colonial history, including the mistreatment of Africans on the island. By panel seven Lawrence turns to L’Ouverture’s birth, education and struggle to liberate Haiti from the Spanish and French. The series culminates in L’Ouverture’s capture and death as a prisoner of war in 1803, with the final panel showing Haiti finally declaring its independence. Scholar Lindsay J. Twa argues that for his 1930s audience, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture claimed Toussaint and Haiti’s history as a part of a shared black experience.2 In creating this body of work, Lawrence launched a research-based artistic practice and process of serial painting to which he would regularly return, including in the work that would make him an overnight sensation in 1941, The Migration Series.

The Toussaint L’Ouverture series remained important to Lawrence throughout his career. He revisited the paintings in 1986, working with printmaker Lou Stovall to select and translate fifteen of the paintings into silkscreen prints. Many of those prints have found homes in public collections, including the National Gallery of Art. The original paintings are at the Amistad Research Center.

1 Harmon Foundation Biographical Sketch,” November 12, 1940, p. 2. American Art Archives, Artist Notebooks, Lawrence, reel 5577.

2 Lindsay J. Twa, Visualizing Haiti in US Culture, 1910-1950 (Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2014), p. 159.

Other Sources

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

Hills, Patricia. Painting Harlem Modern. University of California Press, 2009.

“The Life of Toussaint L’Overture.” The Phillips Collection, The Phillips Collection, 7 Jan. 2017

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