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Jacob A. Lawrence (1917-2000)

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born on 17 September 1917 in Atlantic City, NJ. After spending part of his youth in both Philadelphia and Easton, PA, his mother moved the family to Harlem.A photo of Jacob Lawrence His arrival coincided with the great "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s and early 1930s. This area was the center of a vibrant artistic community that was greatly influenced by the emergence of African-American social consciousness.  It was his experiences during this time that shaped both his development and his future work as an artist.

(Lawrence later in his career)

Showing an interest in art, particularly the works of the Italian Renaissance painters, Lawrence received encouragement from his fellow artists in the community. He received his early training at the Harlem Art Workshops sponsored by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and he produced some of his first significant works while a member of the WPA Federal Art Project. Between 1937 and 1940 he painted a series of "multi-part narratives" of prominent figures in black history including Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. This was followed by his renowned series entitled "The Migration of the American Negro" which depicted the post-World War I movement of Southern blacks in search of employment to the North. The Downtown Gallery first exhibited the series in November 1941 and Lawrence became nationally renown. Later the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington jointly purchased the series after Fortune published a number of the images. Around this time Lawrence also married his wife of 59 years, fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight.

Jacob Lawrence in his Coast Guard uniform, Library of Congress image

In October 1943 Lawrence was drafted into the Coast Guard, then part of the Navy. As the armed services were still segregated, he, along with all African-American recruits, was automatically limited to the steward’s mate rate. After his basic training at Curtis Bay, MD he was assigned to the Ponce de Leon Hotel (commandeered by the Coast Guard) in St. Augustine, FL. Despite his rate, Lawrence was urged to continue his artistic endeavors by his commanding officer, CAPT J.S. Rosenthal. He was later transferred to USCGC Sea Cloud, the first integrated ship in the naval services. The ship’s skipper, LCDR (later CAPT) Carlton Skinner, knew of Lawrence’s prominence as an artist and helped him obtain a Public Relations Specialist (PR3) rate. As such, Lawrence documented life on board Sea Cloud. His series on the Coast Guard was displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1944. Later transferred to USS General W.P. Richardson, he served as one of the service’s first combat artists. With the war’s end, he received an honorable discharge in December 1945. In his relatively short time in the service (26 months), Lawrence had created more than fifty works of art. Most of these works, however, were lost in the post-war demobilization. Though all that remained were some black and white photographs, the evocative quality of these paintings were still clearly visible.

Painting by Jacob Lawrence entitled Control Panel
Jacob Lawrence's painting "Control Panel."

With his discharge from the service, Lawrence continued his career as an artist. In 1946 he received a Guggenheim Post-Service Fellowship. With this award he produced his "War" series which depicted the emotional responses to the war. Throughout the remainder of his life, Lawrence continued to produce prodigiously. He was, for example, commissioned to paint murals for the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the Bicentennial in 1976, as well as covers for Time. He also joined the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle. He died, after a long illness, at his home in Seattle on 19 June 2000. With his numerous paintings chronicling the African-American experience in spare, yet evocative fashion, Jacob Lawrence secured his stature as one of the most prominent American artists of the 20th century.

Artist and Coast Guardsman Jacob Lawrence

A photo of Jacob Lawrence holding one of his paintings

Jacob Lawrence displays his painting "Embarkation" during the war.

Painting by Jacob Lawrence entitled Landing Craft
Jacob Lawrence's painting "Embarkation."

Further Information:

"The Lost Wartime Paintings of Jacob Lawrence," by his former commanding officer on USS Sea Cloud, LCDR Carlton Skinner, USCGR.

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Last Modified 1/12/2016