Jacob Lawrence was an amazingly prolific painter who emerged out of The Harlem Renaissance and achieved recognition and success as an African-American painter. He finished painting his famous “Migration Series” at the age of 23. That series of 60 paintings were immediately bought up by two museums and published in Fortune magazine. This series showed the Great Migration of southern African-Americans to cities in the North. They were seeking work and a new life away from Jim Crow and the plantation/slavery mindset.
Lawrence was born in 1917 and raised by a single mother. His mother, recognizing her son’s early passion enrolled him in arts and crafts classes in Harlem. After dropping out of school at the age of 16 to go to work, he began attending classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by another Harlem Renaissance artist, Charles Alston.
Soon after, the sculptor, Augusta Savage got Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and then a paid position with the Federal Arts Project through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set in place to employ workers during the Depression to rebuild America and create lasting works of art.
Throughout his long career, Lawrence focused on history and telling the stories about the struggles of the African-American people. He was very prolific in doing so. In addition to the 60-panel series of the Migration Series, he painted a 41-panel series on the life of Haitian General Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then a series on Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, the Abolitionist.
In the 1940s he was given a major solo art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. At this time he became the most famous African-American painter in the United States. He also taught at several schools, ending up at the University of Washington in Seattle in the 1970s.
Gouache, watercolor, and tempera were Lawrence’s favorite media. He used simple shapes and bold colors in his compositions. He always worked in series of paintings telling stories of dignity and hope, celebrating the hardworking man and woman. He called his style “dynamic cubism.” He and the other artists he worked with did not like the Abstract Expressionists, calling their work “elitist.” They did however, identify with the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, although Lawrence chose to do smaller scale paintings rather than murals.
My favorite of his paintings, and there are many, is Ironers. This painting shows three laundresses in various poses ironing very colorful clothes. The shapes of their arms and hands indicate great strength and physical exertion. The blues and the complementary oranges and reds, are beautifully placed, giving this painting a lot of energy. I think it is one of Lawrence’s very best, although I think all of his paintings celebrating hard work are excellent.