Jacob Lawrence

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Jacob Lawrence was an influential and renowned American painter, who is indeed in the most prolific and widely celebrated African American artist of the 20th Century. Jacob owes much of his fame to his much discussed and widely acclaimed ‘Migration Series’ and the ‘War Series’.

Jacob Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the age of 2, little Jacob along with his parents, moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, however, soon, in 1924, his parents divorced and parted ways. Jacob’s mother placed him along with his two younger siblings, in a foster care in Philadelphia while she moved to New York City to earn some money. Upon reaching the age of 13, Jacob joined his mother in Harlem, and it was in the harsh and brutal atmosphere of Harlem that he grew up in.

Shortly after his arrival in Harlem, his artistic talent was recognised his mother, who encouraged his artistic training and education and thus, enrolled him at the Utopia Children’s Centre that had a special after-school art program. At the age of 16, Jacob decided to drop out of school however, he continued his art education at the Harlem Art Workshop where he took classes from Charles Alston. Jacob also spent considerable duration of his time feasting his eyes at paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1937, Jacob received a scholarship that secured him admission to the American Artists School in New York City. In 1939, he graduated from the School and began receiving funding from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.

Jacob had developed and perfected his own unique and distinctive style of modernism and he preferred creating narrative series that consisted of more than 30 paintings on one subjects. Some of his best known and widely acclaimed series include ‘Migration of the Negro’ or more commonly known as the ‘The Migration Series’, which he produced in 1941, and showcased in a highly acclaimed and commercially successful exhibition in 1942, at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.

With the advent of WWII, Jacob volunteered his services and he was drafted into the United States Coast Guard. He briefly served in Florida and later, in Massachusetts, following which, he was appointed as a Coast Guard artist on a troopship and assigned with the task of documenting and portraying the experiences and ravages of war all over the globe. Jacob produced 48 paintings on this assignment, unfortunately, not a single one of these paintings has survived.

When the war came to an end, Jacob received the Guggenheim Fellowship, and he devoted his time to developing his iconic and remarkable ‘War Series’. Josef Albers invited him to the Black Mountain College in North Caroline, to teach the summer semester at the College.

In 1949, Jacob began complaining of depression and sadness, and he admitted himself into the Hillside Hospital in Queens, where he stayed for the next eleven months. During this time, he exhausted his agony, grief and fears with subdued colours on the canvas, creating impatient and bold depictions of people who appeared hopeless, dejected and desolate. After his release from the hospital, Jacob began experimenting with the theatre, and in 1951, he painted a series of works that were based on his memories of performances that he had seen at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. Soon, he resumed teaching by taking up a position at the Pratt Institute. Shortly after, he accepted teaching positions at the New School for Social Research along with the Arts Students Leagues.

In 1971, Jacob was offered a tenured position as a professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He accepted this position and taught there till 1986, after which he retired. Along with his professorship, Jacob immersed his time developing paintings for numerous prestigious and influential commissions including murals for the Harold Washington Centre in Chicago, a 72-foot mural for Times Square subway station in New York, murals for the University of Washington and Howard University.

Jacob Lawrence passed away on June 9, 2000. He has contributed to several charities and funds such as the Children’s Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Jacob Lawrence Photo

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