Jacob Lawrence

Born 1917. Died 2000.
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Jacob Lawrence Biography

Social Realist and Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents separated in 1924, and from 1927 to 1930 Lawrence and his two younger siblings were placed in foster care in Philadelphia while their mother worked in New York City. At the age of 13, his mother permanently relocated the family to the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. Following their move, Lawrence began experimenting with art in a craft workshop that was offered by the local settlement house.

Lawrence dropped out of high school at the age of 17, and supported himself through various odd jobs, including working construction and as a newspaper deliveryman—all while he continued to hone and experiment with his artistic practice. In 1941, at the age of 24, he exhibited the sixty-panel “The Migration Series” at the Downtown Gallery in New York. The showing was an incredible success, garnering him much positive press (including in Fortune magazine), and led to him being the first African-American to join a New York commercial gallery’s roster. Ultimately, the series was jointly purchased in its entirety by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

During World War II, Lawrence was drafted into the Coast Guard and worked as a combat artist. Following his service, he returned to Harlem, and in 1946 accepted an invitation to teach at the now renowned Black Mountain College—the same year he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant to facilitate his completion of “The War Series,” which was based on his experiences while serving.

Lawrence’s career continued to flourish, and in 1971 he accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington. He and wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, relocated to Seattle, where he lived until his death in 2000. His artistic legacy cannot be overstated, as his lifetime achievements are perhaps only second to the influence he and his works have had on subsequent generations of artists, including such acclaimed painters as Kerry James Marshall, and the artists of the Mbari art movement. Lawrence’s work is housed in numerous permanent collections, including Galleria degli Ufizzi, Florence, Italy; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum Ludwig, Cologne; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Artist Image: Time Life Pictures