Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence

American Painter

Born: September 7, 1917 - Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died: June 9, 2000 - Seattle, Washington
"The community [in Harlem] let me develop...I painted the only way I knew how to paint...I tried to put the images down the way I related to the community...I was being taught...to see."
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"My pictures express my life and experiences. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint about the American Negro working class."
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"If at times my artworks do not express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man's continuous struggle to life his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being."
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"I have always liked a certain kind of structure that happens to be geometric. It's clean. To me, it has a cleanness about it, a neatness. Maybe that's it. A certain neatness. I keep my studio, try to keep my studio and home the same way...And in teaching I emphasize this aspect."
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"My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content."
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"I am part of the Black community, so I am the Black community speaking."
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"I like to think I've expanded my interest to include not just the Negro theme but man generally and maybe this speaks through the Negro I think this is valid also...I would like to think of it as dealing with all people, the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward..."
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"I never use the term 'protest' in connection with my paintings. They just deal with the social scene...They're how I feel about things."
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"I've always been invovled with content...and form, I think form is just as important [as content]."
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Summary of Jacob Lawrence

Achieving success early in his career, Jacob Lawrence combined Social Realism, modern abstraction, pared down composition, and bold color to create compelling stories of African American experiences and the history of the United States. Drawing on his own life and what he witnessed in his Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Lawrence strove to communicate human struggles and aspirations that resonated with diverse viewers. Coming to artistic maturity during the waning of the Harlem Renaissance and the waxing of Abstract Expressionism, Lawrence charted a unique path, telling poignant stories of migration, war, and mental illness, among others, and would become a powerful influence for younger African American and African artists. While often drawing on the specific experiences of African Americans, Lawrence's long-running and prolific career produced an oeuvre that speaks dramatically, graphically, and movingly to viewers of all colors and persuasions.


  • Early in his career, Lawrence's artistic process relied on a vast amount of historical research. Spending hours at the public library pouring over historical texts, memoirs, and newspapers and attending history clubs that were then popular in Harlem, Lawrence translated these histories into images and linked them to contemporary political struggles both in the North and the Jim Crow segregated South, reinvigorating traditional history painting.
  • Lawrence often worked in series, creating numerous individual panels, to tell a story. Influenced by avant-garde cinema, Lawrence's series often have a montage-effect, but he used structural strategies, such as a unified color palette and recurring motifs, to connect the individual paintings into a coherent whole.
  • Lawrence borrowed strategies from print media to make his stories based in experiential reality as compelling as possible . He paired long, descriptive captions with his paintings as was common in photo magazines and books in the 1930s and 1940s. Additionally, Lawrence used flat, unmodulated colors in large planes that had the quality of print graphics.
  • Lawrence's use of abstraction in depicting the characters of his stories allow those stories, even if historically specific, to have more universal appeal, as the viewer can imagine him or herself in similar positions. Lawrence's ability to imbue the particular drama of everyday life with the gravitas of collective, or universal, humanity is one of his greatest artistic feats.

Biography of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence Photo

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Jacob and Rosa Lee Lawrence, who separated in 1924. Lawrence's parents originally hailed from South Carolina and Virginia, and his family made their way northward to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and eventually Harlem, New York. The Lawrence family's relocation was emblematic of the World War I-era "Great Migration" of African-Americans out of the oppressive conditions of the Southern United States to the relative safety and economic opportunity promised in the Northern states.

Important Art by Jacob Lawrence

Progression of Art

The Frederick Douglass series, Panel 28

The full text of Panel 28 from The Frederick Douglass Series reads: "A cowardly and bloody riot took place in New York in July 1863 - a mob fighting the draft, a mob willing to fight to free the Union, a mob unwilling to fight to free slaves, a mob that attacked every colored person within reach disregarding sex or age. They hanged Negroes, burned their homes, dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp posts. The colored populace took refuge in cellars and garrets. This mob was part of the rebel force, without the rebel uniform but with all its deadly hate. It was the fire of the enemy opened in the rear of the loyal army."

Panel 28 uses simplified forms, a limited color palette, and a clear narrative progression from left to right in tandem with evocative, descriptive text. A group of freed slaves huddle in a shelter, watching the carnage of a Civil War anti-draft riot with expressions of horror and sorrow. Lawrence divided the panel into three dramatic groups. The first group depicts two adults and a child, wide-eyed with fear as they witness the brutality of the riot. The second, middle group shows an older woman, symbolizing an older generation with memories of slavery and the commonality of violence, sheltering a young child who, perhaps unused to such scenes, is seemingly distracted, and grasps the woman's thumb. The third grouping, a mother, father, and infant, symbolizes the hope and fear of a generation born at the cusp of great change and the promise of freedom throughout the United States tantalizingly at hand. Lawrence later recalled the work's important political gestures as "some of the most successful statements I have made in my life ."

Working with a palette of browns, bright red, yellow-orange, black, white, and blue, Lawrence created his figures as non-naturalistic color blocks, their limbs elongated, their torsos concealed beneath blocky clothing, and their facial features simplified to eyes and mere outlines of a nose and mouth. These compositional decisions eliminate extraneous background details that would take away from the poignant emotions of the narrative. Art historian Elizabeth Hutton Turner has said of Lawrence's works in series that they were conceived as "image and word" together, with the works' "poetry" emerging from the "repetition of certain shapes" linking one panel to the next. In Frederick Douglass, the woven basket, made by slaves, acts as a reminder of slave labor, the work of the Black American journey to freedom, and the continual presence of an oppressive past even in a seemingly safer present. The red flower symbolizes hope, and its appearance in Frederick Douglass panels suggests the promise of a better life, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Casein tempera on hardboard - Hampton University Museum, Virginia


The Migration of the Negro, Panel 22

The full text of Panel 22 from The Migration of the Negro series reads: "Another of the social causes of the migrants' leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation."

Lawrence's most famous narrative series, his 60-panel The Migration of the Negro, perfected his signature combination of historical storytelling and abstracted style. In Panel 22, Lawrence used an interplay between linear design and unmodulated color planes to suggest the indignities of Black imprisonment in the pre-Migration-era American South. The incarcerated men are depicted as large, imposing figures, with their heads hanging down, and their broad backs and shoulders extending almost the width of the panel. Despite their size, their immobility suggests their disempowerment in the face of a racist law enforcement and judicial system. Trapped behind bars, with golden handcuffs linking them one to the next, they appear like chattel. The men's slumped shoulders and the dramatic color contrast between the darkness of the men's clothes and grim prison interior, and the bright blue sky beyond the prison confines suggest the men's longing for the freedom they cannot access. Yet, in Panel 22, Lawrence implies that even if the men reached the northern United States and the world of blue sky beyond the prison, ultimately, the men couldn't outrun the root cause of their imprisonment. The echo between the pinstripes on the far-right man's pants and the vertical bars over the jail cell window suggest that as long as racism dictates penal strategy, the men will remain targets for persecution.

Tempera on gesso on composition board - Museum of Modern Art, NY


This is Harlem

With This is Harlem, Lawrence transformed a busy Harlem neighborhood into a series of geometric abstract planes connected to each other by a limited, consistent color palette of brown, blue, yellow, red, black, white, and burnt-red-orange tones. On the roof of the buildings, rectangles and triangles in red, yellow, brown, and black create a back-and-forth interplay between abstraction and figuration. They appear to be chimneys and various structures and at the same time suggest geometric, abstract paintings. Similarly, the human figures populating the Harlem landscape, created with minimal detail and in the same unmodulated color tones Lawrence used for the landscape, appear to dissolve into abstract color planes as much as they represent unique actors, going about the business of daily life.

This is Harlem demonstrates Lawrence's commitment to depicting the intricacies of Black life in Harlem, in particular the social and religious importance of the church and church community. As a predominantly white-toned building, composed with triangular and horizontal rectangular shapes, the church stands out from the painting's other buildings, indicating the centrality of it to African-American life. Similarly, Lawrence used repeated geometric shapes, colors, and references to Christian iconography to suggest the pervasiveness of religion in Harlem, extending from the church and into the secular world of everyday life. For instance, the yellow, blue, and red abstract geometric shapes composing the church's stained glass windows parallel the yellow, blue, and red abstract shapes which create the surrounding apartment units, and the iconography of the cross can be found not only on the church itself, but also in the shapes of the telephone poles and fire escapes.

Gouache on paper - Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution



In Victory, Lawrence uses a single figure, crafted from a minimal assemblage of burnt orange, brown, yellow, and green color blocks, to illustrate the moral ambiguity of wartime. Though ostensibly celebrating the conclusion of the Second World War, the soldier's head hangs in sorrow. His powerful, hulking frame dominates the panel surface, but slumps, his head bowed over his weapon as if in prayer.

Many panels in the War series exemplify Lawrence's statement in 1945 that "When the subjects are strong, I believe simplicity is the best way of treating them ." Having experienced the Second World War in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lawrence wanted the emotions experienced by both soldier and civilian. In Victory, Lawrence captured the complicated emotions of war's conclusion, as the soldier appears not to revel in the news of victory, but instead to contemplate perhaps the human cost which led to such celebrations, his own role in war's slaughter, or even just to wearily express simple relief at surviving the ordeal.

Egg tempera on hardboard panel - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Hospital Series: Sedation

Sedation depicts psychiatric patients contemplating the simultaneous numbness and psychological release of sedation. The men's faces are drawn, with the oppressiveness of mental illness signified by the men's downcast eyes, drooping jowls, limp hair, slumped shoulders, sinuous, elongated torsos, and drab pajamas. Lawrence painted the Hospital series after his discharge from his year-long stay in the psychiatric ward at Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York. He attributed an ability to feel things "through his eyes" after his hospitalization, with his works attempting to capture states of consciousness rather than merely narrate a scene or capture an expressed emotion.

Lawrence constructed Sedation to question whether it was mental illness or its treatment which imprisoned the afflicted. The blue, yellow, and red pills are arranged on a white towel within what appears to be a vitrine. The patients gaze at the pills without being able to access them, their looks of despair a testament to the medicalized relief they can only contemplate but not reach. Alternatively, Lawrence's decision to place the pills within an enclosure suggests future imprisonment. Should the patients open the door to sedation treatment, relief may be found but at the expense of freedom, locking them into the cycle of needing sedation and medical management to cope with their illnesses.

Lawrence's depiction of patients at Hillside in various stages of psychological distress, doing activities collectively, and engaging with the therapeutic process is, in the words of art historian Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, a "marked departure from his other works" as the characters are "neither courageous nor hopeful for their future but resigned." Critics praising Hospital works pointed to the increased psychological depth, social significance, and artistic skill and maturity portrayed in the series' panels, aligning Lawrence with previous modernist masters.

Casein tempera on paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Struggle....From the History of American People: No. 23; ...if we fail, let us fail like men, and expire together in one common struggle...Henry Clay, 1813

In panel 23, Lawrence depicts a battle of the War of 1812, but the consequences of battle are reduced to one, single death. The overlapping, craggy planes of grey, black, and white, intercut with jagged black lines, suggest the smoke of battle and chaos of conflict without depicting figures themselves. Lawrence portrays the central individual at the moment of his death, a sharp gestural line signifying the saber or bayonet from an unseen hand piercing the man's eye, with the red stream of blood and the man's yellow-toned flesh stark against the white and grey planes of battle which both support and envelop him as he falls to the ground. By depicting one man's death at the hands of an anonymous, abstract and all-encompassing enemy, panel 23 illustrates both the singularity of death and its ultimate inconsequence in the grander scheme of war and national self-definition.

As much as Lawrence intended to depict the historical arc of American history, to record, in his words, "the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy," he also attempted to capture a sense of psychological interiority. Art historian Richard J. Powel argues that while Lawrence depicted "America's military shortcomings during the War of 1812," he also harnessed the abstract examples of gestural abstractionists like Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline to portray something "social and/or behavioral." The jagged lines and fractured compositional surface become a surrogate for a more universal statement about the "uphill battles" of life and general feelings of loss and resignation.

Egg tempera on hardboard - Collection of Dr. Kenneth Clark


Two Rebels

Lawrence painted Two Rebels amid the riots and marches related to desegregation in the American South, marking the image as one of his more directly politicized artistic responses to racial unrest. In May of 1963, demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama turned violent, and Lawrence captured the mood in a surreal, exaggerated composition.

Two Rebels depicts two Black men forcibly arrested and escorted to jail by four white police officers. Disembodied heads, representing a leering audience to the arrests, float in the background; the heads' surreal and menacing appearance are characteristic of the unsettling demons and violent dogs populating Lawrence's more contemporary political works in the 1960s. The two arrested Black men are afraid, and the contrast between their spindly hands and larger frames point to their impotence to act and foreshadow the skeletons they may become under police custody. The officers' nightsticks are exaggerated such that the loop at its end appears as if a noose, linking the upheavals of the 1960s Civil Rights movement to the history of violence perpetrated against Black men.

Two Rebels stands as both as specific indictment of segregation and police response to non-violent demonstrations and as a general comment on human behavior circumscribed by oppressive social systems.. According to art historian Patricia Hills, "Lawrence saw [his] civil rights paintings as not different in kind from his other work," and scholars generally note that Lawrence never viewed himself as an activist but rather as a "humanist," who used the struggles of African-American history to symbolize universal struggles.

Egg tempera on hardboard - The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts


The Builders

In his later life, Lawrence often returned to a theme which had interested him since the 1940s: builders. In these paintings, inspired by Harlem cabinetmakers Lawrence associated with in his early WPA arts workshops, men and women of all races traverse the composition in vertical and horizontal configurations, building an unspecified monument or structure. Reminiscent of the works of Stuart Davis, in their overall use of flat color planes and abstract shapes to equally create builder, tool, and structure-in-progress, Lawrence's builder images dissolve the boundaries between foreground and background space, and prevent clear demarcations between and among depicted forms. Here Lawrence depicted a collective of old, young, Black, White, male, and female workers who build, saw, sew, and adjust construction materials. The finished or anticipated project is undefined, leaving the viewer instead with work and labor, the means of production, as central subjects, rather than the completed, built, end.

Lawrence used depictions of the American worker community to symbolize a universal desire to construct one's destiny, with figures of all races together creating, building, and shaping the space of the surrounding world. With fewer color tonalities, looser figural definitions, and less attention to clearly-demarcated boundaries between foreground and background space, Lawrence's late career builders paintings displayed a greater compositional freedom.

Gouache on paper - Collection of Safeco Corporation, Seattle

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jacob Lawrence
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Alain Locke
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    Lincoln Kirstein
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    Jay Leyda
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    Claude McKay
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Barbara Earl Thomas
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    Mary Randlett
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Jacob Lawrence

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Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Jacob Lawrence Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Elizabeth Berkowitz
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 12 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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