Jacob Lawrence

About the Artist

One of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence is widely renowned for his significantly personal style and his modernist depiction of everyday life and epic narratives of African American history. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, Lawrence moved to Harlem in 1930 with his family, where he came into contact with some of the greatest artists of the time. As described by art historian Leslie King-Hammond, Lawrence was “technically trained and artistically educated within the art community in Harlem.” It was the same neighborhood where African-American culture flourished, and a remarkably artistic and creative Harlem Renaissance movement developed. Before he was twenty years old, Lawrence had already developed a distinctive style that was inspired by aesthetics from the south and politically oriented European modernists such as Goya and Daumier.

In 1941, Lawrence suddenly became nationally famous when his The Migration Series was shown at New York’s Downtown Gallery. The series depicts the historical migration of African Americans from the south to the Midwest and then to the North East as prompted by a series of riots in 1917 in St. Louis. He researched extensively and wrote a narrative before painting, as he took seriously of his dual role as educator and artist.

In his later career, Lawrence also took on several large-scale mural commissions, as exemplified by New York in Transit I, 1996 (Figure 1). This work is a study designed for a public mural commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts for Transit program. The final design was installed as a 36-feet wide glass mosaic mural in 2001 at the Times Square subway station in New York, where it still hangs on the mezzanine level near the shuttle line. (Figure 2) This work demonstrates Lawrence’s signature style with its colorful and stylized figures, stark composition, and sharp geometries carried out in a modernist reductive manner.

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