Jacob Lawrence executed The Carpenters
in 1946, soon after he completed his military service during the Second World War. The body of work executed by the artist upon his return home demonstrates his profound interest in the depiction of African American workers and labor, subjects that would preoccupy him for nearly the entirety of his career.
In the present work, Lawrence depicts an industrious carpentry shop, its employees all busily engaged in the tasks of the day. The work aptly exemplifies Lawrence’s signature Cubist-based style, demonstrated in the compressed pictorial space, his reductive color palette and use of angular planes and fractured forms. Lawrence synthesizes dark and light tones to portray the principal elements of the composition, creating tonal modulations that imply volume and create a remarkable dynamism that permeates the composition. Indeed, Lawrence actively considers the structural role of color in works such as The Carpenters
, once articulating its power as “change as you move over the picture plane, in any of the elements with which you are working—the change of the texture, line, the warm color against a cool color, a shape. [How a color] in a round shape means something different if it’s a square or a rectangle” (as quoted in Lowery Sims Stokes, “The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946-1948,” Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence
, Seattle, Washington, p. 208).
Works such as The Carpenters display Lawrence’s incisive examination of social issues, particularly the African American experience in the post-war years. Not unlike the images of barbers, builders and seamstresses Lawrence produced during this period, The Carpenters depicts a profession that did not legally or socially exclude black Americans, thus capturing “the economic advancement that marked the war years for African Americans as well as the aspirations for greater advancement in American society, which would coalesce into the civil rights movement in the 1950s” (Ibid., p. 211).
Lawrence would return to the carpenters subject again in the late 1960s, placing it among the most persistent themes in his body of work. The present work was unknown to Lawrence scholars until 2019, having remained in the family of its original owners, who purchased it from The Downtown Gallery soon after it was completed in 1946.