The Black American artist Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, USA on the 7th September 1917. He was one of the most important American black artists of the 20th century, widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life as well as epic paintings of African American history and historical figures. Born into a poor family his rise to artistic prominence was rapid. Due in part because of the Harlem Renaissance which was an intellectual revival of African American art and literature centred in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City around the 1920’s and 30’s.
He had his first art exhibition aged just 18 years old and by 1941 New York’s Downtown gallery was exhibiting his paintings. He was one of the first black artists to be represented by a major gallery. He loved to work by creating a series of paintings on a particular theme; his most important series being:
- The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the black revolutionary general and founder of the Republic of Haiti.
- The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series that explored the anti-slavery movement.
- By far his most famous being, The Migration Series, inspired by the African American Great Migration, which depicted the movement of 6 million black
- Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the industrial cities in the North and Midwest that occurred between 1916 and 1970’s.
During the Second World War, Jacob Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard and served as a public affairs specialist in the USCGC Sea Cloud. It was the first racially integrated ship in the US navy. By 1949 Lawrence was the most prominent black artist in America. Jacob Lawrence also taught with his wife Gwendolyn Knight at the Black Mountain College in 1946 and was offered a professorship teaching art at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1971.
In 1990 Jacob Lawrence received the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush. Jacob Lawrence is celebrated not only for his artistic achievements and the dramatic impact he had on succeeding generations of black artists. But also, for several firsts, being one of the first Black American artists to achieve widespread, mainstream acclaim, and the first to be represented by a commercial gallery, the Downtown Gallery in New York. In 1999, he and his wife established the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation for the creation, presentation and study of American art, with a particular emphasis on work by African-American artists.
Jacob Lawrence was one of the few painters of his generation who grew up in a black community, to be taught primarily by black artists, and to be influenced by black people. Jacob Lawrence died of lung cancer on 9 June 2000 at the age of 82.
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