Jacob Lawrence

Lawrence's paintings is different from these other artists in that his move to Harlem did not consist of a move from South to North. The painter was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey and settled in Harlem at the age of thirteen, in the year 1930. Lawrence studied in Harlem under Charles Alston, with the famed "306" group which included Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage. Lawrence, in fact, gives credit to Savage specifically for having helped him launch his career. Samella Lewis writes that Lawrence "represents with distinction the first generation of recognized artists nurtured by the African American experience," and continues by referring to him as "the best known, most published, and most influential living African American artist."

The Migration of the Negro Series, 1940-41. "No. 1: During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes."
Tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18.

Both Lawrence's parents were southern born, however -- his father in South Carolina, his mother Virginia. The migration, then, seems to have been something of an indirect reality for him. Indeed, the painter thought enough about the migration to create an entire series of works using it as subject matter. These works, collectively titled "The Migration of the Negro," were painted in the early forties, situating the emergence of a social realist, post-Renaissance style of art, a style which, in the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "critiqued the romanticism of earlier views of the migration and exposed the contradictions in the promised land." Lawrence's "Migration Series" seems then to expound in varying degrees upon the self-consciousness that

the Renaissance first considered. Gates calls Lawrence's work "self-consciously African American," and asserts that the painter was doing "what Alain Locke had urged all along: creating art as a central means by which African Americans could achieve a profound understanding of themselves." Lawrence actively combined research at the Schomburg Center with his painting in order to create an unique "social realism" which looked both figuratively and objectively into the African American experience. One need look no further than the paintings of Lawrence's migration series to detect an intellectual race-consciousness fused with a style suggestive of modernist individualism.

The Migration of the Negro Series, 1940-41. "No. 15: Another cause was lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this." Tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18.

The Migration of the Negro Series, 1940-41. "No. 52. One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis."
Tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18.

Gates writes that "Lawrence's 'Migration Series' is an attempt to resolve two central competing modes of representation in the African American tradition that clashed and struggled for dominance in the 1920's and 1930's: a naturalism that sought to reveal how individual "choice" was always shaped and curtailed by environmental forces and a modernism that sought to chart the relation of the individual will to the chaotic environment. He turned to an 'expressive cubism,' as Patricia Hills has called it, a figural modernism that employed an extended narrative technique to settle the inherent tension between these two poles." Gates is referring to the technique and medium employed by Lawrence in the "Migration Series." It is a collection of 60 paintings -- three of which are shown here -- each numbered and possessing its own small text heading, detailing an aspect of the migration. Beginning and ending in train stations, the series combines an active and human representation of throngs of migrants with a self-conscious, personal style based on simple primary colors and movement. In conclusion, Lawrence's art seems uniquely self-conscious, building on the Renaissance tradition he followed and seeking to continue an active recreation of racial identity.

To the Jacob Lawrence Art Gallary

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