5 Jacob Lawrence Paintings Depicting Powerful Moments From African American History

 

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American painter Jacob Lawrence is known for his powerful artwork that depicts African American culture and history. During his long and prolific career, he combined Social Realism, modern abstraction, and bold colors to create work that illustrates important historic moments as well as what he personally witnessed in his Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Some of his most famous works were produced during the Harlem Renaissance (1918 – 1935), an art movement that celebrated African American culture and identity.

From stories of enslavement to moments of police brutality, many of Lawrence’s paintings depict hardship and political struggle within the African American community. Other works celebrate the vibrancy of life in Harlem and the fight for equality. Read on to discover five of Lawrence’s works that capture his unique artistic style.

Discover five Jacob Lawrence paintings that powerfully illustrate African American history and culture.

 

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 57, 1940–41

 

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From 1910 to 1970, six million African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. The dramatic shift caused a permanent change in the social, political, and cultural fabric of the U.S. Lawrence’s 60-panel series, The Migration of the Negro, tells a visual story of the mass movement. From depictions of traveling crowds to portrayals of individuals, his African American subjects are often painted dark brown or black—without faces.

Each work has its own caption. For Panel 57, it reads, “The female workers were the last to arrive north.” In this panel, a laundrette stands before a jumble of colorful textiles hung to dry as she stirs a sea of fabrics. Female domestic workers in the South were poorly paid and often struggled to make ends meet. The painting suggests that this woman has a huge amount of work to do before she can begin her journey.

In 1942, 25-year-old Lawrence gained national recognition when the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection shared the acquisition of his Migration of the Negro series. During the same year, it was exhibited in 15 venues across the U.S.

 

Pool Parlor, 1942

 

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A prizewinner in the Artists for Victory competition, Pool Parlor is painted in Lawrence’s signature flatforms, angular lines, and limited color palette. It depicts a lively scene in a Harlem pool hall, where men dressed in hats and suits play the game in exaggerated poses. Low-hanging lights and zigzags of cigarette smoke float throughout the room, adding to the relaxed but busy atmosphere of the scene.

 

This is Harlem, 1943

Featuring a series of geometric, abstract planes, This is Harlem captures a busy Harlem neighborhood. Lawrence was fascinated by the sights and sounds of the area, and he often referred to the “endlessly fascinating patterns” of “cast-iron fire escapes and their shadows created across the brick walls.” He remarked on the “variegated colors and shapes of pieces of laundry on lines stretched across the back yards… the patterns of letters on the huge billboards, and the electric signs.” In This is Harlem, Lawrence depicts these elements of the landscape as well as the spirit of the community.

A jumble of buildings and storefronts line the streets while human subjects are painted dotted throughout the scene. On the right of the composition, two figures are shown dancing on the street corner. Others are illustrated going in and out of the town church. The white-toned building, composed of triangular and horizontal rectangular shapes, stands apart from the painting’s other buildings. In this piece, Lawrence highlights the importance of religion in African American life.

 

Two Rebels, 1963

 

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Two Rebels was created in 1963 in response to the anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The surreal composition depicts two African American men forcibly arrested and escorted to jail by four white police officers. They look afraid and defeated as they’re dragged through the streets. A collection of floating heads watch the moment unfold from the background, perhaps representing how the world watched the historical moment. The officers’ batons are exaggerated with loops on the end, just like a noose. Lawrence references the history of violence against Black people and the upheavals of the 1960s civil rights movement.

 

To Preserve Their Freedom (From the Toussaint L’Ouverture series), 1988

 

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Lawrence’s’ Toussaint L’Ouverture screen printed series was inspired by the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary. L’Ouverture was born into slavery but led an uprising that freed Haiti from European rule. After hearing the story as a young man, Lawrence was shocked that the historical moment has been omitted from his formal education. He was determined to share the story and began to visualize moments from L’Ouverture’s life in his art. Rendered in simple forms and bright colors, To Preserve Their Freedom, depicts a dramatic battle scene where men and women fight for their liberty.

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