Blog Post #5 – Ironers Analysis

Ironers by Jacob Lawrence, 1943, Gouache on paper, 21.5″ x 29.5”, Private collection of Ann and Andrew Dintenfass.

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.

Here is another painting of a washer woman. It is number 57 in the 60-panel Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence.



4 thoughts on “Blog Post #5 – Ironers Analysis

  1. I think you did a great job of giving a thorough history on Lawrence but I didnt see a lot of connection to the Harlem Renaissance. It would have been a little better if you connected on how his styles effected art and how it showed true uniqueness in the Harlem Renaissance. Otherwise I think you did a great job of giving your own opinion and elaborating on this artist and his different styles.

  2. I connected Jacob Lawrence through two other Harlem Renaisance artists who were his mentors and set him on the path to being a huge personage of that Era… Charles Aston and Augusta Savage. I noted that he achieved recognition and success which was extremely rare for African-Americans artists in that day, and today for that matter. I also noted he was part of the clique that distained the new Abstract Expressionists… as they believed they thought they were above everyone else. The Harlem Renaissance artists favored the Mexican muralists who also depicted the plight of struggling humanity and not the every day happy affairs of the Impressionists. They were not familiar with that kind of life. They only knew struggle and pain. I don’t think you read my piece very carefully. I could have written a whole thesis on this artist alone and the Harlem Renaissance but this is not our assignment. Lawrence is most definitely tied in here to the Harlem Renaissance and a note to our professor, this is why I do not care much for critiqueing each other’s work, and having our grade dependent on other opinions. I write and research because I love Art History. I write much more in depth in comparison and analysis because I want to learn more about an artist or a particular artistic style. This to me, this exercise in critiqueing each other on our blogs is just a distraction from real learning and a waste of time.

  3. Thank you for your post, Laura, and following comment. I had never heard of Jacob Lawrence before. I really like how his pieces seem to take advantage of his popularity to bring light to African-American lifestyle. I have not researched the artwork of the Harlem Renaissance, as I was more focused on the musical transformation during that period, but I wonder if any of the black artists of this time tried to “fit in” rather than create something new, to be safe. I’m gonna go check that out now 🙂
    I agree that critiquing each others’ posts is uncomfortable. I don’t pay big money for classes to do grading myself…I could see a small group discussion being beneficial in a classroom setting, but online it’s a bit of a mess. I’m assuming you are an art major/minor with your mention of your other class, and I imagine it must be a bit frustrating to have a bunch of Core requirement people blabbering about stuff you actually know/care about. While the content of this class is very interesting, I’d rather have a more traditional approach with quizzes and reading rather than a very public blog. Kudos for defending your work- these assignments are extremely time consuming!

  4. Thanks Miriam. I just get frustrated because I put my whole heart into my posts and submit them to the professor in a Word document with my replies. Each blog is really a “paper” between 4-6 pages in length, plus the Written Assignments are about the same length. When I go to critique my co-students, some have only 2 or 3 paragraphs. I got docked 10 points on Blog #4 because a student commented I hadn’t done my comparison to another art style further back as I should have. I did my comparison between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism because I really wanted to know the difference and I wanted to leave those other styles behind as I have studied those in previous classes. I have a passion for research and really knowing and understanding art history and biographies of individual artists as well. You should see the DVD collection I have about artists. They all seem to have lived fascinating lives. I am excited about the Modern era, and I had never heard of Jacob Lawrence before either. A 60-series Migration Series at the age of 23? I find that amazing! And yes, I am four or five classes away from my art degree, and probably part way to my masters as well because I’ve been taking additional art history because I love it! Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it. This class, although very interesting, is the most time intensive history course I have ever taken. Lots and lots of writing and I have a habit of reading everything provided! 🙂

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