Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, NJ, the son of relocated Southerners. He dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen to study art with the painter Charles Alston (1907–1977) at the Harlem Art Workshop in New York City. In 1941 he married Gwendolyn Knight (1913-2005), an artist in her own right.
During the 1930’s Depression, Lawrence joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project in Harlem. Finding WPA murals overwhelming, Lawrence concentrated on traditional painting instead. He produced his first major works in the late 1930s; and by 1940, he was painting scenes of Harlem street life that became commentaries on the role of African Americans in United States society, with highly developed themes of resistance and social opposition.
In 1941 Lawrence completed his still most celebrated work, The Migration of the American Negro, a series of 60 small tempera paintings about the multi-decade early 20th century mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in search of better employment and social opportunities. Edith Halpert exhibited these paintings at her Downtown Gallery that same year, establishing Lawrence as the first African American artist to exhibit in a top New York gallery. The following year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC each bought half of the series. In 2015, the two museums collaborated on a joint full-series exhibit at MOMA.
Lawrence was drafted in 1943 into the U.S. Coast Guard as a steward’s mate, a common assignment for blacks in the Navy, and was stationed in St. Augustine FL for basic training. He serviced the dining and living quarters of the officers at the Hotel Ponce de Leon, where he was housed in the attic with the other steward’s mates.
Despite his low rank, Lawrence was urged by his commanding officer to continue painting. Later he was transferred to USCGC Sea Cloud, the first integrated ship in the naval services, where he was assigned to document life on board with his paintings. Afterward, Lawrence remembered this landmark experiment in racial equality as “the best democracy I have ever known.” His series on the Coast Guard was displayed at MOMA in 1944. (Above, Embarkation is from that series.)
In the summer of 1946, Lawrence was invited to teach at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College by the artist Joseph Albers. It was the first in a series of teaching positions in prestigious art schools including Pratt Institute, Brandeis University, the Art Students League, and others. During the 1950s and 1960s, Lawrence’s paintings continued to focus on racism and political activism; but in the late 1960s shifted to themes of racial harmony. (Lawrence is pictured here at Black Mountain College with his wife Gendolyn Knight, and also with her while he was still in the Navy. His 1977 Self Portrait is below, along with a more mature photograph.)
In 1970, Lawrence traveled to Seattle to teach as a visiting artist at the University of Washington. He was hired on a permanent basis the following year and remained on staff until his retirement in 1986.
When Lawrence died in Seattle on June 9, 2000, the New York Times described him as "One of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience." His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, and are still exhibited regularly.
Works from HMA's collection by artists who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement will be exhibited at HMA between February 6 and May 29, 2016 . Artists will include Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Sharif Bey, Juie Rattley III, Kara Walker and more. (Links connect to HMA blog posts about each artist.)