Jacob Lawrence

About Artist: American painter. He took Works Progress Administration art classes in New York (1934–7), and also studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, New York (1935) and the American Artists’ School (1937). Lawrence’s vigorous social realism quickly brought him recognition and by 1941 he was the first African-American artist to be represented in the collection of MOMA in New York. His early work comprised genre depictions of everyday life in Harlem, as well as major series devoted to black history. The 41 pictures of the Touissant L’Ouverture series (1937–8; see 1986–7 exh. cat., pp. 52–3) are addressed to Haiti’s struggle for independence in the 19th century. Small pictures, executed in tempera on paper, they are characteristic of his use of water-based media throughout his career; the schematic designs, flat space and vigorous, angular figures are typical of his style both at the beginning and the end of his life. Tombstones (1942; New York, Whitney) exemplifies his interest in subjects drawn from everyday life, his leanings towards regionalism, and the occasionally mordant religiosity and symbolism of his work: it depicts a monumental mason’s shop in Harlem. A period teaching at Black Mountain College after World War II brought him under the influence of Josef Albers, which consolidated his interest in form and design, and following this his realism became more stylized. For a brief period the surfaces of his work fragmented and became highly patterned: the Theatre series (1951–2; see 1986–7 exh. cat., pp. 120–1) is characteristic. By the late 1960s his style had simplified again, resembling his approach in the 1930s.

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