Jacob Lawrence, painter of the Great Migration

Posted on November 26th, 2012 by

Some may call his work revolutionary, but according to artist Jacob Lawrence his art simply reflects the culture he knew and the stories he was told growing up. Born in New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the 1920s, a period when artistic expression was booming amongst African Americans. After moving to Harlem, he was introduced to mentors such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage who molded him into the dynamic artist that visually portrayed the construction of blackness.

Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

During the age of “The New Negro,” a term coined by Alain Locke, Lawrence along with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay was able to expand his talents thanks to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In Lawrence’s case, the fund enabled him to rent a studio, which led to the further development of his series of paintings entitled The Great Migration, which depicted the journey, struggle, and triumphs of blacks from the South to the North after the Civil War. His depiction of that cultural movement provided a different perspective of a commonly told story capturing moments that people could relate to and understand.

Lawrence was able to complete the series remarkably quickly (all 60 panels were finished in 6 to 8 months of 1941) thanks to the first two of his three consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. The Migration Series was recognized fairly quickly as an important work and in December of 1941, it was shown in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City as part of a pioneering exhibition of “American Negro Art,” possibly the first time a black artist’s work had been displayed in a major New York gallery.

Curators of two modern art museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., immediately expressed interest in purchasing the series. It was decided that the collection would be split in half, each museum taking 30 paintings, for a total purchase price of $2,000. MoMA took the even numbered panels based on the input of one of its trustees, Adele Rosenwald Levy. Levy, the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, had fallen in love with panel #46, an image of a staircase, and it was agreed that the paintings be divided so that MoMA would receive that one. The Migration Series remains a prominent feature of both museums’ permanent collection and over the years has been reunited for exhibitions around the country.

Years after his death, Lawrence still provides a platform for untold stories through art. Jacob and his late wife Gwen developed a fellowship at the Seattle Art Museum that funds artistic work from people of color that reflects Lawrence’s ideologies. The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation houses all of his series including Toussaint L’Ouverture – one of his most notable works. For more information on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, visit jacobandgwenlawrence.org.

By Ariel Edem and Michael Rose