Jacob Lawrence: Harlem Icon and National Treasure
Today, September 7th, marks the birthday of painter Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), whose vital presence in America's artistic heritage grew from his roots in the Harlem community. In celebration of his legacy, we've reproduced Assistant Curator Lauren Haynes's essay on The Architect (1959), originally published in Re:Collection: Selected Works from The Studio Museum in Harlem.
One of the most influential African-American painters of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence, is well known for his series "The Migration of the Negro" (1940–41), a masterful work of marrative painting that depitcs the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North during the Great Depression. The Architect (1959) is created in Larence's signature style, which he referred to as "dynamic cubism," and exemplifies his astute attetion to composition, as well as his use of geometric shapes and bold applications of color. This work captures the role the architect plays in the popular imagination, as a creator of massive and lasting structures.
Although he was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence's family moved to Harlem in 1930, where his introduction to art began; he took classes at Harlem artist workshops while he was growuing up and studied with other African-American artists such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. Lawrence's connections and commitment to the Studio Msueum were strong; his first exhibition at the Studio Museum opened in 1969 and featured works from his "Toussaint L'Ouverture" series (1937–38), forty-one paintings that chronicle the life of the Haitain revolutionary leader. After depicting L'Ouverture, he focused in particular on the lives of influential Americans such as John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Lawrence is celebrated for his colorful, narrative illustrations of the harsh struggles and often intolerable conditions black people have faced around the world and throught history. To quote curator and art historian Lowery Stokes Sims, "In his commitmet to modernism and his commitment to the African-American experience, Lawrence has created an oeuvre that bridges the gap between form and content which has been promoted by modernist criticism."