Essay about Jacob Lawrence

Essay about Jacob Lawrence

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One the most distinguished artists of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City and spnt part of his child hood in Pennsylvania. After his parents split up in 1924, he went with his mother and siblings to New York, settling in Harlem. "He trained as a painter at the Harlem Art Workshop, inside the New York Public Library's 113 5th Street branch. Younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Lawrence was also at an angle to them: he was not interested in the kind of idealized, fake-primitive images of blacks - the Noble Negroes in Art Deco guise - that tended to be produced as an antidote to the toxic racist stereotypes with which white popular culture had flooded America since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, he gained self-confidence from the Harlem cultural milieu - in particular, from the art critic Alain Locke, a Harvard-trained esthete (and America's first black Rhodes scholar) who believed strongly in the possibility of an art created by blacks, which could speak explicitly to African-Americans and still embody the values, and self-critical powers, of modernism. Or, in Locke's own words, "There is in truly great art no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values." This would not sit well with today's American cultural separatists who trumpet about the incompatibility of American experiences - "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand" - but it was vital to Lawrence's own growth as an artist. Locke perceived the importance of the Great Migration, not just as an economic event but as a cultural one, in which countless blacks took over the control of their own lives, which had been denied them in the South: When years later he told an interviewer that "I am the black community," he was neither boasting nor kidding. He had none of the alienation from Harlem that was felt by some other black artists of the 1930s, like the expatriate William Johnson.


















Jacob Lawrence is celebrated for his insightful depictions of American and, in particular, African American life. Best known for his epic series of paintings on such subjects as the lives of Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L'Ouverture, he has also created numerous prints, murals, and drawings. Among the latter are a delightful set of twenty-three illustrations...


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...re obvious: the flat, sharp overlaps of form, the reliance on silhouette, and a high degree of abstraction in the color. But there is something more demotic behind those colors. They came, as Lawrence acknowledged, more from his experience in Harlem than from other art:

In order to add something to their lives, [black families] decorated their tenements and their homes in all of these colors. I've been asked, is anyone in my family artistically inclined? I've always felt ashamed of my response and I always said no, not realizing that my artistic sensibility came from this ambiance.... It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and took in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the depression. All these colors.

"The memory of them is plain in Number 57, "The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South", with its single figure of a laundress in a white smock, stirring a vat of fabrics - blue, black, yellow, pink - with her pole: a dense and well-locked composition, suggesting the permanence and resistance which is one of the underlying themes of Lawrence's series."







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