Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, preparing to open at Seattle Art Museum

“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” having debuted at the Peabody Essex Museum, with stops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Birmingham (AL) Museum of Art, now travels to the Seattle Art Museum before wrapping up at the Phillips Collection.

A series of paintings calling greater attention to black and female protagonists from American history would hardly be considered groundbreaking in 2021. In 1956, however, it certainly was. Especially with that series being produced by the nation’s foremost black painter at the time, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).

“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” becomes the first museum exhibition examining Lawrence’s revolutionary series of paintings which upended the then-popular telling of America’s creation, Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56).

The series of 30 surprisingly small panels–each a petite 12-by-16 inches–depicts pivotal moments in early American history with emphasis on the contributions of black people, Native Americans and women to shaping the nation’s founding and identity. Jacob Lawrence didn’t ignore the role of white men–Struggle features George Washington crossing the Delaware River and Paul Revere’s ride. What he offered was a wider, more complete perspective on the story of American history.

Had Jacob Lawrence chosen to exclude white men from how he told his story, he could hardly have been blamed. When Struggle debuted, Jim Crow was the order of the day across the South. The Supreme Court had just ruled to desegregate public schools. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts were making front page news.

Jacob Lawrence, Massacre in Boston, Panel 2, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, egg tempera on hardboard.
Jacob Lawrence, Massacre in Boston, Panel 2, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, egg tempera on hardboard. COLLECTION OF HARVEY AND HARVEY-ANN ROSS. © THE JACOB AND GWENDOLYN KNIGHT LAWRENCE FOUNDATION, SEATTLE/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOB PACKERT/PEM

Jacob Lawrence: Beyond the Migration Series

Lawrence was a famous contemporary artist by the mid-1950s thanks to the smashing success of his Migration Series depicting the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the Northeast, Midwest and West which began in the second decade of the 1900s. Migration became the first work from a black artist acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942, just months after its debut in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.

Jacob Lawrence was 23-years-old when he produced the 60-panel series which would define his artistic legacy.

Struggle was not met with the same reception. Lawrence’s gallerist had a difficult time selling the paintings. The market may have been open to Lawrence as a storyteller of black history, but as a storyteller of wider American history, not so much.

As a result, the works were separated. Lawrence created 10 narrative series of paintings in his lifetime, Struggle being the only one not kept together. That fact plays heavily in why the series has never received exhibition treatment previously. The works were scattered to the wind.

Ironically, without the help of Migration, they might never have been reunited.

During a 1993 reunion of the Migration Series at MoMA, a gallery around the corner, the Midtown Payson Galleries, was simultaneously exhibiting works from Lawrence, including a couple from Struggle.

Cue serendipity.

“There was a Lawrence collector (who had visited the MoMA reunion and happened upon Midtown Payson Galleries) who was really moved by this other series that was dispersed,” Lydia Gordon, the exhibition’s coordinating curator explains.

Gordon received assistance in organizing “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” from Elizabeth Hutton Turner. Previously the senior curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (co-owner of the Migration Series with MoMA), Turner worked closely with Lawrence over many years and curated the 1993 Migration reunion helping, eventually, bring this remarkable story full circle.  

“The collector of Lawrence (who stumbled into Midtown Payson Galleries in 1993) that lent to (this) exhibition is Harvey Ross, and he and his late wife, in turns, made it a personal mission of their own to try to reconstitute the lost narrative,” Gordon said.

Believe it… or not.

This exhibit brings 25 works from the series together for the first time in over 60 years. Four paintings from Struggle remain unaccounted for. One was re-discovered during the presentation of the show in New York.

Jacob Lawrence paintings prove bigger isn’t better

Don’t let the paintings’ small format fool you, they pack a wallop.

“Their colors are just dynamite,” Gordon said. “The way that he lays down color is masterful.”

Color creates a searing first impression. Visitors are likely next to notice the shard-like figures.

“These paintings have a lot more angles, these jagged edges are very evident, there’s lots of fragmentation,” Gordon said.

They’re tense. They’re tight. Their small size crowds the figures, massing them in close quarters action.

“There’s lots of blood,” Gordon notes. “They pull you right in the middle of the action and they’re modest in scale; that just goes to show how much of a master painter he was.”

In contrast to the Migration Series, as Gordon notes, “he is painting (Struggle) at the height of his powers in the 1950s.”

Also unlike Migration, in which Lawrence applied his colors iteratively–all the yellow at the same time, all the blue at the same time–each Struggle panel was painted individually.

Jacob Lawrence research informs titles

Perhaps the greatest departure for the artist in Struggle from his other work is how he titled the pictures. Prior to and after Struggle, he utilized a third-person narration to title the pieces, such as, They arrived in great numbers into Chicago, the gateway of the West, from the Migration Series.

In Struggle, he changes to a first-person narration. For freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enuff, this quote from a Georgia slave in 1810 titling Panel 27 in the series

Jacob Lawrence spent countless hours researching first-person accounts of the events he would paint. Much of this study took place inside the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture) in Harlem. This went on for more than five years before he put brush to panel. His often lengthy captions feature excerpts from famous speeches as well as reports, letters and petitions from anonymous soldiers and enslaved people.

Freedom, as Lawrence shows, has always been a struggle in America. It was for the white men who had to wrestle theirs away from the British and it continues to be for the blacks, Natives, women and others attempting to take their fair share ever since.

“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” debuts at the Seattle Art Museum as it reopens on March 5 and will run through May 23.

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