SACRAMENTO, CA.- History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence provides a comprehensive overview of influential American artist Jacob Lawrences (19172000) printmaking oeuvre, featuring more than 90 works produced from 1963 to 2000, including complete print portfolios, such as the Toussaint LOuverture series, The Legend of John Brown series, and others. The exhibition explores three major themes that occupied the artists graphic works: history, labor, and life.
Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where his family had moved from the rural South in the hope of finding a better life. After his parents separated, Lawrence and his two younger siblings lived in settlement houses and foster homes in Philadelphia until 1930, when the children rejoined their mother in New York City. Lawrences education in art was both informal, observing the activity and rhythms of the streets of Harlem, and formal, attending after-school community workshops at Utopia Childrens House and at the Harlem Art Workshop. He studied with noted artist Charles Alston and, in the course of his work, became immersed in the cultural activity and fervor of the artists and writers who led the Harlem Renaissance, Alston among them. In 1937, Lawrence received a scholarship to the American Artists School and subsequently began to gain recognition for his work. Members of the creative community, including poet Claude McKay and sculptor Augusta Savage, encouraged his endeavors as an artist.
In 1938, Lawrence had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and started working in the easel painting division of the Works Progress Administrations Federal Art Project. In 1940, he received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to create a series of images on the migration of African Americans from the South. Painter Gwendolyn Knight assisted him with the captions for the images and in the fabrication of the works. They married in 1941. That same year, The Migration of the Negro (later renamed The Migration Series) debuted at Downtown Gallery in New York City. Lawrence was the first artist of color to be represented by a major New York gallery and, at just 24 years old, he achieved national prominence through the success of the exhibition.
Lawrence began exploring printmaking as an established artist. Printmaking suited his bold, formal, and narrative style well, and the inherent multiplicity of the medium provided greater opportunities to broaden his audience. The relationship between his painting and printmaking were intertwined, with the artist revisiting and remaking earlier paintings as prints. He was primarily concerned with the narration of African American experiences and histories, and his acute observations of daily life, work, and struggle were rendered alongside vividly imagined chronicles of the past. In some of his prints, for instance, he recalled his visits to Schomburg Library (today, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), where he read about heroes like Harriet Tubman, depicted in his 1997 print Forward Together, as well as the Haitian revolutionist Toussaint LOuverture and abolitionist John Brown. Lawrence also portrayed laborers and builders as noble figures integral to the community and rendered an animated preacher delivering a sermon on the Book of Genesis with fervor, the latter based on his own memories of attending Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Past and present are intrinsically linked, providing insight into the social, economic, and political realities that continue to impact and shape contemporary society.
Lawrence remained active throughout his career as both an artist and art educator. He taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1946 and, later, at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1971, he became a professor of painting at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Lawrence received the National Medal of Arts and was the first visual artist to receive the Spingarn Medal, the NAACPs highest honor. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he received 18 honorary doctorates and served both as a commissioner of the National Council of Arts and as a nominator for the Fulbright Art Committee and the National Hall of Fame. He continued drawing and painting until his death in 2000.