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Jacob Lawrence is most widely known for the Migration of the Negro, an epic narrative series of sixty paintings that he completed in 1941 at the age of twenty-four.
The series, which was painted in bright tempera paints on small hardboard panels — all of which are accompanied by captions — depicts the flight of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during and after the first World War. The series is a unique blend of sensibilities, part mural painting, part social realism, and part modernist abstraction.
Lawrence painted the series while he was living in a run-down studio building on 125th Street in New York City that lacked heat or running water. Several months later, twenty-six of the panels were published in color in Fortune magazine, launching the artist's career. In an unusual response to the institutional demand for the work, Lawrence agreed to a joint purchase by the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art, which organized an extensive national tour.
Lawrence was the first African American artist to be represented by a major commercial gallery and the first to receive sustained mainstream recognition in the United States. From 1941 until 1953, he exhibited regularly at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, New York, and throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, when many other African American artists were denied professional consideration, he was a regular participant in annual exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, his work is represented in almost two hundred museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Writing in the catalogue for Lawrence's retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Art Museum in 1974, the art historian Milton C. Brown noted: "Perhaps no other artist of our time has hewn so closely, despite external conditions and personal esthetic evolution, to his original inspiration and principles. There is something monolithic about Jacob Lawrence and his work, a hard core of undeviating seriousness and commitment to both social and Black consciousness.… He has at the same time continued to insist on the larger human struggle for freedom and social justice in all the world and for all people."
Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents were from the South and had migrated North during World War I. When Lawrence was an adolescent, his family moved to rural Pennsylvania, then to Philadelphia where his parents separated. Lawrence spent several years with his brother and sister in foster homes, before joining his mother in Harlem in 1930, at the age of thirteen. He balanced school and work as a delivery boy to supplement the modest income of his mother who worked as a domestic.
While Lawrence was in his early teenage years, his mother enrolled him in an after-school art program in Harlem. By the mid-1930s, he was regularly participating in community art programs and in 1937, he secured a two-year scholarship to the American Artists School. Struggling to help support his family, to attend school, and to make art, he eventually dropped out of high school. In 1938, at the age of twenty-one, he secured employment with the WPA Federal Art Project, working as a professional painter in the easel division.
Lawrence's earliest surviving paintings (c. 1935) are biting satirical portraits of life in Harlem during the Great Depression. In somber colors on brown kraft-like paper, they depict scenes of overt poverty, inadequate health care, police intimidation, evictions, and racial exploitation. He began painting in series format in the late 1930s, completing a series of forty-one paintings on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary who was instrumental in establishing Haiti as the first black Western republic. Two other series followed on the lives of the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
In 1941, Lawrence married Gwendolyn Knight, a respected sculptor and painter. Knight became an avid supporter of her husband's work, helping him with the preparations for his paintings, offering critical feedback on his work, and even assisting him in writing the captions that accompanied many of the series.
Following a year-long honeymoon to the South, where they lived in New Orleans and rural Virginia, the Lawrences returned to New York, where Mr. Lawrence completed a group of thirty paintings on life in Harlem. He was then drafted into the Coast Guard, first as a steward's mate at an officer's training camp and then on board the first racially integrated ship in U.S. naval history. His commanding officer, Captain Carlton Skinner, secured Lawrence a public relations rating which provided him the opportunity to paint full-time. As a combat artist, however, his choice of subjects was unusual. Rather than paint images of combat or standard officers' and ships' portraits, he painted the ship's crew.
Throughout the 1940s, Lawrence exhibited actively in museums and commercial galleries in the United States and abroad. He was included yearly in the Whitney Annual exhibitions and exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Sao Paolo Bienal. He completed commissions for Fortune magazine, Masses & Mainstream, and other periodicals as well as illustrations for a book of poems by Langston Hughes entitled One-Way Ticket.
During the 1950s, as abstract expressionism cast its long shadow on figurative and social art, Lawrence refused to sway from his humanistic approach to painting. He created paintings inspired by performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and New York City street life, complex allegories on race and subjectivity. He also completed a thirty-painting cycle on the early history of the United States, his first series in over a decade. In 1962, he traveled to Africa for the first time, lecturing and teaching in Nigeria. He returned with his wife for eight months in 1964, living and working in Lagos and Ibadan. There he painted elaborately patterned paintings of village life in the post-colonial country.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Lawrence committed himself to commissions, especially limited edition prints and murals. Nearly all of his prints have provided funding for nonprofit organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Amistad Research Foundation, the Children's Defense Fund, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His murals can be seen at the Harold Washington Center in Chicago, the University of Washington, Seattle, Howard University, and the Addabbo Federal Building in New York City. In 1997, he completed the design for a seventy-two foot long mural that was installed in 2001 in the new Times Square Subway Complex at Broadway and 42nd Street in New York City.
Lawrence devoted much of his life to teaching. In the late 1930s, when African American history was not taught in the public schools, he visited schools in New York City with his paintings. In 1946, Josef Albers, the Bauhaus master, invited Lawrence to teach at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. Working with Albers was a revelation for Lawrence and from Albers he developed a philosophy of teaching grounded in aesthetic principles, especially issues of composition, line, and color theory. By the mid-1950s, Lawrence was teaching regularly, first at Pratt Institute and later at the New School for Social Research, Art Students League, and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In 1971, he accepted a tenured position at the University of Washington, Seattle, from which he retired as professor emeritus in 1986.
Lawrence's work has been the subject of four retrospective exhibitions, organized by the American Federation of Arts (1960), the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974), the Seattle Art Museum (1986), and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (2001). Lawrence is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and the first visual artist to receive the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates from universities, including Harvard University, Yale University, New York University, Howard University, and Amherst College. He served as both a commissioner of the National Council of Arts, and as a nominator for the Fulbright Art Committee and the National Hall of Fame.
Lawrence was actively painting until several weeks before his death on June 9, 2000. In December 1999, he completed twelve new paintings that were exhibited in Seattle at the Francine Seders Gallery in January 2000. During the spring of 2000, he worked on a new group of paintings on university life that were scheduled for exhibition at the DC Moore Gallery, New York, in November 2000. The paintings were left unfinished at his death.
Married to Jacob Lawrence for 59 years, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence was also a lifelong artist and her husband's most highly valued critic. Like Jacob Lawrence, throughout her career Gwen Knight remained unswayed by abstract expressionism and other trends that moved through the art world. Though she shared Lawrence's interest in figuration, her method was more spontaneous and her subject matter more personal. She charted her own creative path in a characteristically independent way.
Gwen Knight was born in Barbados in 1913. When she was seven, her widowed mother entrusted her to close friends who brought her with them to the United States. In 1926, at the age of 13, Knight moved with her foster family from their first home in St. Louis to Harlem, where her developing interest in the arts flowered in the creative atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance. Growing up among freethinkers, the young Gwen was an avid reader, a lover of dance, theater, and opera, who eagerly took in the burgeoning cultural activity of Harlem. For a time her family lived in an apartment building on Seventh Avenue that was also home to the great jazz musicians Billy Strayhorn and Ethel Waters.
Knight attended Wadleigh High School, one of the few integrated schools in New York and one with a reputation for good scholarship. Her first formal study of art came at Howard University, where she studied with the painter Lois Maillou Jones and with printmaker James Lesesne Wells. Knight noted that women painters were not taken very seriously at Howard at the time, however, and when her stay there was cut short by the Depression at the end of her second year, she returned to Harlem.
In Harlem, Knight became a daily participant in the workshop of sculptor Augusta Savage, director of the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and later of the Harlem Community Arts Center, which was funded by the federal Works Progress Administration. In Savage, Knight found a mentor, and Savage's studio became a second home. Savage helped her develop technical skills and a way of using the figure as a base in her compositions, incorporating structural and emotional narrative components. "By looking at her," Knight said, "I understood that I could be an artist if I wanted to be." It was through Savage that Knight first came into contact with Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Charles Alston, Ralph Ellison, Alain Locke, Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, and other writers, thinkers, and artists at the heart of Harlem's cultural ferment.
In the mid-1930s, Knight went to work for the WPA's Fine Arts Project, assisting graphic designer and painter Charles Alston with a mural in the children's ward at Harlem Hospital. In 1934, in Alston's studio, she met Jacob Lawrence. They were married in 1941, forming a strong and enduring partnership.
One of Knight's favorite New York haunts during those years was Alfred Stieglitz's An American Place gallery, then home to Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe, among others. In Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, Curator Sheryl Conkleton notes that Knight's early images "reveal some affinity with that of early modernists who were interested in painted equivalents for their emotional experiences, such as Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe, both of whom were favorites of Knight. Although surrounded by advocates for various kinds of pictorial renovation of African and African-American history and culture, Knight persisted in pursuing a less narrative idiom.…As her work developed, Knight became more committed to the interpretation and communication of visual delight in the world around her. It superseded the need to tell a story or to explore the larger meaning of what it meant to be a modern painter."
While not as prolific as her husband, throughout all of her travels with Jacob Lawrence over the following decades, Knight kept up a life of active engagement with art, continually reading, studying, and painting. Knight was stimulated by her exposure to Josef Albers and other artists during a stay at Black Mountain College in 1946, where she taught informal dance lessons while Lawrence taught art. Returning to New York, Knight strengthened her understanding of the relationship between dance and design while studying with the New Dance Group, led by members of Martha Graham's company.
In 1949, Knight took a job at Conde Nast, working in its library and magazine archives. She remained with Conde Nast for over a decade, helping to provide some financial stability for the couple while Lawrence assumed a series of temporary teaching positions. During this time she studied design at the New School of Social Research with Alexei Brodovitch. Following a stimulating and productive sojourn with Lawrence in Nigeria in 1964, Knight again took classes in New York, working with a group of women painters. Her work from this period includes a number of closely studied portraits. Knight exhibited increasingly in the late 1960s; her work was included in "Portrayal of the Negroes in American Painting," at the Forum Gallery in New York in 1967, along with works by Hughie Lee-Smith, Raymond Saunders, Ernest Crichlow, and Lawrence.
In 1971, when Jacob was offered a full-time tenured position at the University of Washington, the Lawrences moved to Seattle.
In Seattle, Knight became an active member of the cultural community, serving on committees of the Urban League and the Seattle Chapter of the Links, as a member of the King County Arts Commission, and on numerous arts panels and juries. A few years after moving to Seattle, she joined the Francine Seders Gallery, which also represented Jacob Lawrence. Knight's first solo exhibition was at the Seattle Art Museum in 1976. From the mid-1970s onward, her work gained a growing audience and recognition in the Northwest and beyond, with exhibits in venues in Georgia, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.
Knight continued working until 2001, turning in her late work to a series of lyrical monoprints that captured her interest in improvisation and movement. In 2003, a retrospective of her work appeared at the Tacoma Art Museum and at DC Moore Gallery in New York City, which represents both Knight and Lawrence. The exhibition was the occasion for the monograph Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, by Sheryl Conkleton and Barbara Earl Thomas. The book was published by the University of Washington Press in association with the Tacoma Art Museum.
Gwen Knight Lawrence died in Seattle on February 18, 2005, at the age of 92.