Jacob Lawrence was a renowned African American painter of the 20th century. He was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When he was 2 years old the family relocated to Easton, Pennsylvania. Shortly afterwards, his parents split up and his mother placed him and his siblings in foster care while she moved to New York City. He went to live with his mother when he turned 13 who then enrolled him in Utopia Children’s Center. There he joined an after school art program. He took an interest in art from an early age and his teachers noted his great talent and encouraged him. He dropped out of school at the age of 16 but continued to take art classes at the Harlem Art Workshop with the renowned African American painter Charles Alston. He also attended other classes at the Harlem Community Art Center with the renowned sculptor Augusta Savage.
In 1937, he received a scholarship to attend the American Artists School in New York. He also worked with the Works Progress Administration, which had been established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. During World War II, Jacob Lawrence joined the Coast Guard and served on board the USCGC Sea Cloud, along with the first racially integrated crew. He continued to paint during this time, and also married a fellow artist named Gwendolyn Knight. The couple moved to the Pacific Northwest, where Lawrence had been invited to work as an art professor at the University of Washington.
Jacob Lawrence’s work mainly focused on the struggles of African Americans during the great migration. His first acclaimed series of paintings were done at the age of 21, and were exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art. At the age of 23, he produced a series of 60 paintings initially titled “Migration of the Negro” but later shortened to the Migration Series. In it, he depicted the movement of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the North. These paintings were displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art and brought him widespread acclaim. In 1940, he had a grand solo exhibition at the same museum and became one of the most distinguished painters of the country.
He also did a series of paintings about the lives of revolutionary freedom fighters Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and also one about the abolitionist John Brown. His later work, done after moving to Washington included a series of paintings about the journey of African American pioneer, George Washington Bush, which are now displayed at the State of Washington History Museum. In 1997, he illustrated a version of Aesop’s Fables for the University of Washington Press. Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship where he painted his War Series.
Jacob Lawrence also taught at several universities including the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. On the journey there, he was transported by a private railway carriage otherwise he might have been forced to ride in the colored carriage. Later in his life he got depressed and checked himself into a facility in Queens for 11 months. He continued to paint during this time but the work produced during this time had a quieter and more subdued quality to it. Later on he also joined the theater and also painted a piece called “Theatre” which is now displayed in the lobby of the University of Washington. In 1971, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington in Seattle, from where retired in 1986. He also funded several nonprofit projects such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Children’s Defense Fund. He died in June 2000 at the age of 82 and is remembered as one of the pioneer African American painters of his time.