About Jacob Lawrence

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 catalog 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 healthcare, police intimidation, evictions, and racial exploitation. He began painting in a 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 onboard 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 São Paolo Biennial. 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 in 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 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 in 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 scheduled for exhibition at the DC Moore Gallery, New York, in November 2000. The paintings were left unfinished at his death.

Awards and Honors
Jacob Lawrence was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts (1990), the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal
and eighteen honorary doctorates. Other honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts
Letters and the National Academy of Design. Here is a selection of some of the awards and honors
Lawrence received during his career.

Two-year scholarship to American Artists School, New York

2nd prize, Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, 1851-1940 at the American Negro Exhibition

Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship (also 1941 and 1940) 6th purchase prize, Artists for Victory: An
Exhibition of Contemporary American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

John Simon Guggenheim Post Service Fellowship Achievement award, New Masses magazine

Norman Wait Harris Medal, Art Institute of Chicago 1st place purchase award, Seventh Annual
of Paintings, Sculptures, and Prints by Negro Artists, Atlanta University Certificate of
Opportunity magazine

Honorary award, Committee for the Negro in the Arts

Award winner, Brooklyn Museum’s biennial of the Society of Brooklyn Artists, New York

National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant, New York

Chapelbrook Foundation Fellowship

First Prize in Mural Competition for United Nations Building (shared with Stuart Davis), New York

Spingarn Medal (NAACP) Honorary Doctorate, Denison University, Granville, OH

Honorary Doctorate, Pratt Institute, New York

Citation from the National Association of Schools of Art, The Brooklyn Arts Book for Children
presented by the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Public Library, New York

Appointed Elector Hall of Fame for Great Americans Honorary Doctorate, Colby College, Waterville, ME

Nominated Commissioner, National Council of the Arts, by President Carter, confirmed by the U.S.
Appointed Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for 1978, University of Washington, Seattle

Honorary Doctorate, Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore

Washington State Governor’s Award of Special Commendation, Olympia Honorary Doctorate,
University, Pittsburgh

Elected Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York

Washington State Governor’s Arts Award, Olympia Honorary Doctorate, State University of New York,
Albany, NY

Honorary Doctorate, Howard University, Washington

Honorary Doctorate, Spelman College, Atlanta Honorary Doctorate, Yale University, New Haven, CT

“The Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work, Exhibition, Presentation or Performance,” The
College Art Association of America, NY NAACP 3rd Annual Great Black Artists Award, New York National
Council for Culture and Art, Inc., New York Images Award for Outstanding Achievement in Art,
of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Honorary Doctorate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ Honorary
Parsons School of Design, New York

Honorary Doctorate, Tulane University, New Orleans

National Medal of Arts from President George Bush

National Arts Award, The Links Honorary Doctorate, New York University, New York Honorary Doctorate,
Rochester University, Rochester, NY Honorary Doctorate, Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, NJ

National Arts Club Medal of Honor, New York

Edwin T. Pratt Award, The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Seattle Charles White Lifetime
Achievement Award, Los Angeles

Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences Skowhegan Medal for Painting, Skowhegan School of
and Sculpture, New York Honorary Doctorate, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Awarded The Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern
Methodist University, Dallas Lifetime Achievement in the Arts with Gwendolyn Knight, Corporate
for the Arts, Seattle Honorary Doctorate, Seattle University, Seattle Honorary Doctorate, Amherst
College, Amherst, MA

New York Artist Equity Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Visual Arts, New York William O.
Douglas Award, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Seattle Lifetime Achievement Award,
College of the Arts, Seattle Founders’ Day Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts,
Honorary Doctorate, West Chester University, West Chester, PA

Washington State Medal of Merit, Olympia Honorary Doctorate, University of Illinois at Chicago

6th Annual Golden Umbrella Award and Mayor’s Master Artist Award, Seattle Lifetime Achievement
Americans for the Arts, New York

Artist of the Year Award, PONCHO, Seattle