One of the most famous painters during the first half of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) had two notable first-time achievements:
1. he was the first African-American artist to exhibit in a New York gallery (1941); and
2. he is the sole 20th century artist whose seminal work – a group of 60 paintings known as The Migration Series– is owned by and divided between two museums, the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art.
It is no wonder, then, that the MoMA show exhibiting all these Jacob Lawrence paintings is such a magnificent success.
Born in 1917, Lawrence moved to Harlem at age ten and dropped out of high school when he was 16. While working odd jobs, he began studying at the Harlem Art Workshop and subsequently was awarded a scholarship to New York’s American Artists School. It was there that he honed his distinctive style of flat, overlapping forms he labelled “dynamic Cubism”.
In 1938, Lawrence went to work for the Works Progress Administration as an easel painter. Deemed too young at 21 to be a WPA muralist, Lawrence chafed at the size limitations of easel paintings; his solution was to paint in narrative series.
With this format, Jacob Lawrence became a master storyteller of black history. Like his fellow Harlem Renaissance artists, Lawrence addressed social struggles and injustices head-on and strove to highlight the historic accomplishments of outstanding blacks.
His five such groups of paintings are:
- a series of 31 works about Harriet Tubman, the noted abolitionist, social reformer and conductor of the Underground Railroad (1938-1940);
- a group of 32 paintings about her fellow abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, that were completed in 1938-1940;
- a group of 41 works about the Haitian revolution and its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture;
- the John Brown works depicting the life of the controversial abolitionist; and
- the Migration of the Negro – renamed in 1993 to The Migration Series- a group of 60 paintings depicting the massive exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North and Midwest between World War I and World War II.
None is more powerful than The Migration Series.
Arguably, it depicts the most massive demographic upheaval in U. S. history as African-Americans exited the Jim Crow South: in 1910, for example, New York City and Chicago had 92,000 and 42,000 blacks, respectively. By 1940, these populations had quintupled in each city, while in Detroit, the population increased 24-fold in three decades. As noted by Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, migrants settled in those cities that were the terminus of a railroad line.
Both the North and South roiled from this shift and during this era. Northern labor agents, or recruiters, were arrested, as were migrants waiting for their trains out of the South. Tensions erupted in the so-called Red Summer of 1919, a series of nation-wide riots and massacres of African-Americans by whites in northern and southern towns.
Discrimination and mistreatment were not solely a Southern affair.
Some established African-Americans, for instance, shunned and disdained their lesser educated, impoverished brethren. Veterans returning from the war found their jobs taken and their neighborhoods integrated. Migrants were often hired as strike breakers, a set-up for guaranteed hostility.
The Migration Series captures this all.
Lawrence devoted months to researching the history of the Great Migration at the Schomberg Collection of the Public Library of New York. His fellow artist and future wife, Gwendolyn Knight, helped select key events, write their captions, and gesso the 60 panels. Lawrence then lined all up, and painted one color at a time across the series to ensure color continuity.
These Jacob Lawrence paintings were made together — and belong together. May the critical acclaim earned by this show spur MoMA and the Phillips Collection to devise a means to exhibit them as this great artist intended.