Jacob Lawrence Migration Series - Humanities – Picturing America

Jacob Lawrence
[1917 – 2000]
The Migration Series, No 57
c. 1940 - 1941
Jacob Lawrence is regarded as one of the
masters of African-American art.
• Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New
• When his parents separated, Lawrence
and his siblings moved with their mother
first to Pennsylvania and eventually to
• To keep her young son busy, Rose
Lawrence enrolled young Jacob in art
classes, where he showed early promise.
Jacob Lawrence age 6
• Both she and the artist’s father had
“come up”—a phrase used to indicate
one of the most important events in African
American history since Reconstruction:
• The migration of African Americans out of
the rural South.
• This exodus was gathering strength at the
time of World War I, and fundamentally
altered the ethnic mix of New York City
and great industrial centers such as
Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and
• In the late 1930s, the American artist
Jacob Lawrence began producing
extended narratives composed of multiple
small paintings that were based on history
or biography.
• Lawrence started "The Migration of the
Negro" -- that's the complete original title
of his series -- in 1940, when he was 22.
• He was born in New Jersey to parents
who'd recently left the South, had grown
up in Pennsylvania and had lived in
Harlem since his early teens.
• He settled with his mother and two siblings
in Harlem at age thirteen.
• Harlem in the 1920s was rich in talent and
creativity, and young Jacob, encouraged
by well-known painter Charles Alston and
sculptor Augusta Savage, dared to hope
he could earn his living as an artist.
• One of his first mentors was AfricanAmerican sculptor Augusta Savage, who
continued to guide his career in later
• Augusta Savage, born Augusta Christine
Fells (February 29, 1892 – March 26, 1962) was
an African-American sculptor associated with the
Harlem Renaissance.
• She was also a teacher and her studio was
important to the careers of a rising generation of
artists who would become nationally known.
• She worked for equal rights for African
Americans in the arts.
• She was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida.
• She began making clay figures as a child, mostly
small animals, but her father would beat her
when he found her sculptures.
• This was because at that time, he believed her
sculpture to be a sinful practice, based upon his
interpretation of the "graven images" portion of
the Bible.
• After the family moved to West Palm Beach, she
sculpted a Virgin Mary figure, and, upon seeing
it, her father changed his mind, regretting his
past actions.
• The principal of her new school recognized and
encouraged her talent, and paid her one dollar a
day to teach modeling during her senior year.
• This began a life-long commitment to teaching
as well as to art.
Augusta Savage
• “She [Augusta] was the first person to give
me the idea of being an artist as a job,”
Lawrence later recounted.
• “I always wanted to be an artist, but
assumed I’d have to work in a laundry or
something of that nature.”
• Lawrence’s greatest inspiration came from
the people and places of his Harlem
neighborhood. Everything was open to his
paintbrush—families, architecture,
landmarks, even Harlem’s famous
• He was one of the artists who was a part
of the Harlem Renaissance.
• Although younger than most of the artists,
Lawrence had a unique painting style and
was determined to use his paintings as
positive depictions of black life in America.
• To further excel at his craft, Lawrence
attended New York’s American Artists
School from 1937 to 1939.
• Lawrence noted that the 1930s in Harlem
"was actually a wonderful period . .
.although we didn't know this at the time.
Of course it wasn't wonderful for our
parents. For them, it was a struggle, but
for the younger people coming along like
myself, there was a real vitality in the
• Just before World War II, Lawrence
married fellow painter Gwendolyn Knight,
also a student of Augusta Savage.
• Knight would be his partner for decades to
• The couple remained married until
Lawrence’s death.
• Lawrence was deeply confident in his
identity as a black man, having been
raised around other blacks who constantly
affirmed his identity.
• Yet Lawrence also knew that other blacks
were suffering from the ravages of
discrimination and racism.
• He also was schooled in the history of
Africans in America. Determined to meld
his painting with his social awareness,
Lawrence painted several series of works
with different historical themes.
• When he won a grant to paint the
"Migration" pictures, Lawrence hadn't had
much formal training and was barely
launched on his career, though he'd been
in contact with some of the artistic leaders
of the Harlem Renaissance.
• The subject of the migration occurred to
him in the mid-1930s.
• To prepare, Lawrence recalled
anecdotes told by family and friends
and spent months at the Harlem branch
of the New York Public Library
researching historical events.
• The 60 hardboard panels of "Migration,"
only 12 by 18 inches each, walk us
through the flight of African Americans
from the rural South around the time of
World War I.
• Lawrence frequently called his style
“dynamic cubism.”
• The dynamism is present in his use of
vibrant colors and designs that
resemble African-American quilts and
textiles found in Africa.
• The cubism is present in the flat, often
angled layers of the subjects in his work.
• “In order to add something to their lives,
[black families] decorated their tenements
and their homes in all of these colors.....
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
• Lawrence used the same palate of colors
throughout the whole series.
• He did not mix colors.
• By using these colors, it unifies not only
the pictures, but also their theme.
• He was the first visual artist to engage this
important topic, and he envisioned his
work in a form unique to him:
• A painted and written narrative in the spirit
of the West African griot—a professional
poet renowned as a repository of tradition
and history.
Panel no. 58
• The Migration Series was painted in
tempera paint on small boards (here,
twelve by eighteen inches) prepared with a
shiny white glue base called gesso that
emerges on the surface as tiny, textured
• By far the most famous of these is The
Migration Series (1941), a sequence of 60
paintings depicting the mass movement of
African Americans from the rural South to
the urban North between World War I and
World War II—a development that had
previously received little or no widespread
• Before he began painting, Lawrence spent
months researching the subject and
distilling it into short captions and
preparatory drawings.
• Then, with the help of his wife, the artist
Gwendolyn Knight, he prepared 60 boards
for the paintings.
• He created the paintings in tempera, a
type of water-base paint that dries rapidly.
To keep the colors consistent, he applied
one hue at a time to every painting where
it was to appear, a feat of organization that
required him to plan all 60 paintings in
Panel no. 24
• Lawrence, intent on constructing a
seamless narrative, chose to work with a
single hue at a time on all sixty panels.
• He used drawings only as a guide, painted
with colors straight from the jar, and
enlivened his compositions with vigorous
brushstrokes that help further the
movement of the story.
• The captions placed below each image
are composed in a matter-of-fact tone;
• They were written first and are an integral
part of the work, not simply an explanation
of the image.
• Lawrence often described the migration as
“people on the move,” and his series
begins and ends with crowds of people at
a train station (a potent symbol for growth
and change in American history);
• In the first panel, people stream away from
the viewer through gates labeled
“Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis”;
Panel no. 1
• In the last one, they face us, still and
silent, behind an empty track.
• The caption, which states, “And the
migrants kept coming,” renders the
message sent by the painting ambiguous
and evocative.
• Are the migrants leaving us, or have they
just arrived?
• What is our relationship to them?
Panel no. 60
Panel no. 59
• Lawrence also asks those questions of the
laundress, who appears toward the end of the
• Her monumental, semipyramidal form, anchored
between the brown vat containing a swirling
pattern of orange, green, yellow, and black items
and the overlapping rectangles of her completed
work, is thrust toward us by her brilliant white
• Jacob Lawrence did not need to look far to
find a heroic African American woman for
this image of a solitary black laundress:
• His mother had spent long hours cleaning
homes to support her children.
Panel no. 57
• With head bent in physical and mental
concentration, she wields an orange dolly,
or washing stick, in a precise vertical:
• A powerful stabilizing force in the painting,
and a visual metaphor for her strength and
• Lawrence showed The Migration Series in
Harlem before being invited to bring it to a
downtown setting that had previously
displayed only the work of white artists.
• The exhibition received rave reviews and
Lawrence’s acceptance by the art world
and the public was confirmed when
twenty-six of the panels were reproduced
in Fortune magazine.
• After they were published in part in
Fortune magazine, the series was the
subject of a solo show at the Downtown
Gallery in Manhattan in 1941, making
Lawrence the first black artist represented
by a New York gallery.
• Interest in the series was intense.
• Lawrence had intended the series to
remain intact, but agreed to divide it
between two museums,
• The even numbers going to the Museum
of Modern Art in New York City, and the
odd numbers to the Phillips Collection in
Washington, D.C
• The crucial thing about Lawrence's
"Migration" is how it is so completely
centered on its subject matter.
• The series was made in the great age of
modernist style, whose consuming
interest was in how a picture looked.
• Yet Lawrence's art is consumed with the
story it wants to tell.
Panel no. 5
Panel no. 10
• We see Southern troubles: the boll weevil
that destroyed the cotton crop, the
lynchings, the unfair courts and oppressive
labor practices, the poverty.
• We see the moment of migration:
• The black newspapers and Northern labor
scouts encouraging migrants to move;
• The efforts of the Southern establishment
to keep them from leaving;
• The crowded trains that carry them away.
Panel no. 49
Panel no. 20
• And we see the benefits and trials of their
new Northern homes:
• Jobs and better food and less overt
• Ghettos and race riots and attacks on
black buildings.
• It's clear that Lawrence's commitment to
communicating these facts, as powerfully
as possible, is greater than his interest in
pretty-picture making.
• Lawrence doesn't simply ignore the radical
changes that had hit painting over the
previous four decades.
• He couldn't work in any of the old realist
techniques, because those were too
closely tied with the bad old days they
were born in.
• To be of their time, and to look forward
with some semblance of hope, Lawrence's
"Migration" paintings had to work in a
timely, modern style that was widely seen
as speaking to the future.
• But somehow, as a black man treating the
outsider status of his race, his use of that
vanguard style also had to register some
opposition to it, as the product of
“oppressive white society.”
• That opposition is especially clear in the
casual crafting of the "Migration" series.
• Almost all of Lawrence's forms and figures
are stylized, as modern art demanded.
• But rather than sleek outlines and
geometric elegance, they have sloppy
contours and crude shapes.
• His broad areas of color have gaps and
hesitations, as though filled in with magic
markers by a slightly lazy kid.
• Lawrence avoids the fine surface polish
often sought in the fine arts and goes
instead for striking pictorial effects
achieved with minimum labor.
• It's as though he recognizes a fully modern
style as the only language he can credibly
speak in but wants to insist that it's the
message, rather than the language, that
really matters to him.
• By making his images unsatisfactory, in
terms of the highest standards of refined
modern art, Lawrence says he's got
different aims than such pioneers as Pablo
Picasso and Fernand Léger, or American
followers such as Stuart Davis and
Charles Sheeler.
• There's never anything high-flown or
needlessly complex in Lawrence's
"Migration of the Negro,"
• No allegory or coy symbolism or arcane
• It's meant to have the storytelling power of
a Passion cycle on the walls of a medieval
• Instead, storytelling images work because of the
effort it takes to decipher them -- to match them
to the stories that you know, or to contemplate
what unknown stories they might illustrate.
• And they work because that effort gets you
looking that much closer and thinking that much
harder about the situations depicted in them.
• Lawrence's series, with its charged issues,
appropriately demands a bit more effort even
than usual.
• What precisely is the subject of the almostabstract picture in Panel No. 7, captioned "The
Negro, who had been part of the soil for many
years, was now going into and living a new life in
the urban centers"? (At least, that's its original
caption. In the 1990s, Lawrence provided
updated captions for most of the series.)
Panel no. 7
Panel no. 10
• Or how about Panel 19, captioned "There
had always been discrimination"?
• It takes a minute to make out the double
drinking fountains, with a white woman at
one and a black mother and daughter at
the other.
Panel no. 17
Panel no. 18
Panel no. 30
Panel no. 21 The Seamstress
Panel no. 21 The Barber Shop
Panel no. 39
Panel no. 53
• Lawrence retains just enough of
modernism's disjunctions -- of the broken
spaces and forms of cubism and
futurism -- to stand for the painfully
fractured world he's depicting, and to
concentrate our minds on it. But there's
never so much modernism that its style
distracts from his subject.
• Lawrence retired in 1986 as a professor
art at University of Washington in Seattle.
• He received more than two dozen
honorary degrees in his lifetime and
several awards for his artwork and
community service, including the
Springarn Medal in 1971—the highest
award given by the N.A.A.C.P.
• Lawrence died in his sleep June 9, 2000.
• His work continues to stand as an artistic
triumph among American artists.
Essay Question 1
• Lawrence painted all the panels for The
Migration Series at the same time, one
color at a time.
• How did this affect the way the series
Essay Question 2
• Why were African Americans leaving the
• What were they seeking?
• What type of jobs were many migrants
hoping to find in the North?
Essay Question 3
• How did Lawrence learned about scenes
from the migration?
Essay Question 4
• What was significant about Lawrence
being asked to exhibit his art in a
downtown gallery?
Essay Question 5
• Why was Lawrence like a West African
(A griot is a professional poet who
perpetuates history and genealogy
through tales and music.)
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