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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,650

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This is the grave of Jacob Lawrence.

Born in Atlantic City in 1917, Lawrence grew up poor. His parents had moved north during the early years of the Great Migration. But they got divorced, the father simply walked away from the kids, and the mother put Jacob and his siblings in foster care. She eventually moved to Harlem and got the kids back in 1930. Shortly after they moved to New York, Lawrence’s mother put him in an art class at the local settlement house. This wasn’t because he had shown talent per se, but so he would stay off the streets. Well, it worked out.

Lawrence took art classes, even though he wasn’t much on school generally. A lot of that was the family’s poverty. He dropped out at the age of 16 and went to work at the hard jobs that one could get, like at laundries. But he kept going to art classes in his spare time, fell under the tutelage of Charles Alston, and then of Augusta Savage. These were two of the leading artists of Harlem Renaissance and pretty well-connected in the art community. They very much recognized Lawrence’s talent. Savage got Lawrence a scholarship to study at the American Artists School and a muralist job with the Works Progress Administration so he could get paid for painting.

Lawerence had an interesting combination of traits. First, because of his lack of formal schooling, he came to painting with fewer outside influences and thus a more unique voice than many painters. Second, he was deeply influenced by Black history. Third, he was interested in portrait painting. So he made his first big splash in 1938, with a series of 41 paintings of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture that was shown at an exhibition of Black artists in Baltimore. He followed that up with additional portrait series of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

In 1941, Lawrence married Gwendolyn Knight. She was a WPA painter too. Much later, she would have a reasonably successful artistic career too, though she didn’t show much until the 70s. A lot of her life before that was spent supporting her husband’s work, which was an all-too common fate of talented women through the 20th century and before.

What really sent Lawrence into the stratosphere was the Migration Series, which he painted in 1940 and 1941. This series of paintings, which Lawrence conceptualized as a single work, is one of the most powerful pieces of art ever produced in this nation. Showing experiences of the Great Migration through his inimitable style, he provided a 60 image story of a transformative moment in American history as it was still happening. This was a big deal at the time too. Somewhat unfortunately, the collection got split between MOMA and the Phillips Collection in 1942 and they are displayed as 30 panels each in both places. I have seen the MOMA half and I was in love, though missing the other half. But hey, at least he sold them and made a lot of money.

During World War II, Lawrence was in Coast Guard and in an interesting role–an integrated one. The Coast Guard experimented in integration before the other branches of the military and Lawrence was on that ship. Unfortunately, all of the paintings from his time in the Coast Guard have been lost.

By the end of the war, the whole art world knew Lawrence. He took a job at Black Mountain College, the experimental art school in North Carolina. Gwendolyn was hired too. But these were rough years for him, due to growing mental illness. He spent nearly a year in an asylum in the late 40s, painting while trying to survive. This would become a problem for him through the 50s and he had some rough times.

But when Lawrence was in a more solid mental state, he remained one of the great geniuses of mid-century painting. Importantly to me, he was his own painter, pretty unconcerned with the rise of abstract expressionism for instance, that CIA-funded movement designed to get people away from socialist realism and into art that had no connection with anything that could be seen as political, or even something in the real world. I don’t actually hate abstract expressionism, but the way it took over the art world is a little depressing given the CIA aspect of it. This reminds me that the rise of the reputation of Frida Kahlo over Diego Rivera as the better artist is very much about the art world moving from the political to the personal. Now, one can obviously believe Kahlo was the greater artist and I won’t argue with you. At the very least, she was the more interesting artist. But there’s also a sort of “overtly leftist class-based revolutionary politics are icky” vibe to it that remains pretty strong in our world today.

Meanwhile, Lawrence spent the mid-50s painting another set of historical masterpieces. “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” covered American history from 1775 to 1817, a total of 30 paintings that was a direct response to, among other things, Joseph McCarthy. Lawrence was an exponent of Black history and brought little known figures to light, such as Margaret Corbin, who fought in the American Revolution and was the first woman to receive a pension from Congress for military service. Unfortunately, both the politics and culture of Lawrence were against him here. He couldn’t find a museum would who buy such works at this time. They ended up in the hands of a private collector, who then sold them off as an individual pieces and, to my knowledge, have never been displayed as a whole to this day. In fact, they were so scattered and Lawrence so uncool during the peak days of abstract expressionism and [spit] pop art that three of the panels are currently lost and three others only rediscovered in the last decade. Maybe the last three will show up.

By the 60s, Lawrence was doing a lot of illustration for children’s books, most notably Harriet and the Promised Land, which was widely praised and was an important point for him. Then, in 1970, he found the stability he had needed for a long time. The University of Washington brought him to Seattle as a visiting artist and then offered him a full-time job. While I hate to say anything positive about the Huskies, I am forced to do so here. He was a professor of art at UW from 1971 to 1986. He also took on the little known Black history of the Northwest in his work there, painting another series on the Black pioneer of Washington from the 1850s, a man by the hilarious name for us today of George Washington Bush. He also did a series based on the Hiroshima bombings and the horrors of the nuclear age.

Later in life, Lawrence received the accolades somewhat missing in the abstract expressionist era. The Whitney did a major retrospective in 1974 and the Seattle Art Museum did another in 1986. Lawrence continued to work until shortly before his death, which came from lung cancer in 2000. He was 82 years old.

While I wouldn’t put Lawrence at the very top of my favorite American artists (that would probably have to go to Edward Hopper), he’s a definite top 5 for me.

Jacob Lawrence is buried in Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan, New York.

But wait, there’s more! You see, if go to FindaGrave, it reads that Lawerence’s grave is unknown. Well, I found it.

That wasn’t intentional per se. I was there to visit someone else (someone I haven’t gotten to yet though I have done a few from this trip) and I figured that since I was in a fancy church in Manhattan, I might scan these spaces and find some people I didn’t expect. And lo and behold, there was Jacob Lawrence. That isn’t the first time I’ve run across graves considered unknown either. When I stumbled upon Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, they were listed the same way, although they have since been included on the website. So that was kind of interesting.

Incidentally, I went to the Harlem Renaissance retrospective at the Met awhile back and it’s quite good. There’s not much Lawrence since he was really after that movement, but there’s lots of astounding works there. Check it out if you are in New York at some point before it closes.

Let’s look at a few of Lawrence’s paintings:

The Shoemaker, 1945
The Pool Parlor, 1942
We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton … the night was excessively severe … which the men bore without the least murmur…-Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776/Struggle Series – No. 10: Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1954
The Builders, 1938

If you would like this series to visit other Black painters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alma Thomas is in Sanford, North Carolina and Lois Jones is in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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