Jacob Lawrence Notes on Being Black in America
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
“Utopia Children’s House” in Harlem is where African-American artist Jacob Lawrence was first encouraged to draw and paint. His mother worked long hours cleaning buildings. She couldn’t spend much time with him. So she enrolled Jacob in an after-school program at Utopia.
“I don’t teach Jacob Lawrence; he teaches himself,” said instructor and artist Charles Alston. “The best I can do is help him find his own way.” That’s what Alston did.
Jacob ultimately became the storyteller of his people on paper. Through his art he captured the pulse of Harlem and his neighbors. He painted what he saw: the slums and the cockroaches. He painted the black heroes whose photos he rarely saw in history books like freedom fighters Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown. .
His stories were about slavery and freedom. His stories were about fighting against the odds, struggling and winning. Jacob also painted his family’s experience in the great migration north after slavery ended. One of his largest artistic undertakings in 1941 was sixty panels chronicling “The Migration of the Negro.”
“I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro,” he said.
Gallery owner Edith Halpert saw the series and it was the first time a major art gallery gave a showing of an African-American’s work. The entire 60 painting series was purchased and divided between New York Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
As he grew up Jacob attended free evening art classes. He often walked more than 60 blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he studied the work of other artist-storytellers like Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco. Their simple dramatic styles spoke to him. He was also inspired by the oral history of Harlem and spent hours at the library learning everything he could about black history.
When he was 21 Jacob enrolled into a government art program working on what was called the Easel Project, a program designed to provide work for poor artists in the United States. It was the Depression and Jacob earned $23.86 per week, a pretty good paycheck in those days, and given free art supplies.
His only requirement was to give the project two new paintings every six weeks. After the Easel Project ended a grant from a foundation allowed Jacob to continue his work.
During the 1940s Jacob did more than 250 paintings. By the 1960s he turned his attention to segregation and the class battles that resulted.
“Some people may hate me for holding up a mirror but I can’t drop it,” he said.
In 1971 Jacob became a full-time professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and remained until his retirement 12 years later. Many of his paintings during this period have a building theme.
“For me a painting should have three things: universality, clarity, and strength,” he said.
Jacob called his bold, figurative style “dynamic cubism.” He worked in series of paintings, each with a distinct theme.
On Oct. 6, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, featured a selection of Jacob’s artwork in its African-American Fine Art auction. Here are some current values.
Carpenters; Offset Color lithograph; on Rives BFK paper; 1977; signed; 18 1/8 inches 22 1/8 inches; $2,640.
People in Other Rooms (Harlem Street Scene); color screenprint; signed; 1975; 24 ½ inches by 18 ½ inches; $3,120.
Schomburg Library; color lithograph on Arches paper; 1987; signed; 124/200; 26 inches by 20 inches; $4,800.
Untitled (Two Card Players); Folding Screen; gouache; circa 1941-42; each panel 66 inches by 18 inches; $108,000.