The migration gained in momentum
1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12" (45.7 x 30.5 cm)
Jacob Lawrence: Painter of Black History and Life
Though he came of age before the Civil Rights Movement brought African Americans the rights they had long been denied, Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000) forged a prominent career as an artist, chronicling the story of black life in America through his paintings. Born in New Jersey and raised from the age of thirteen in Harlem, New York City, this Northeast native had southern roots. He was the child of migrants who moved, together with millions of other African Americans, from the impoverished rural South to urban, industrialized Midwestern and Northeastern cities during the mass relocation known as the Great Migration (1915–1950s). Lawrence maintained that he was “a child of the Great Migration,” which shaped the course of his own and his fellow African Americans’ lives.1
If the Great Migration provided him with geographical advantages, it was Harlem, then in the midst of the cultural and intellectual outpouring known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–1930s), that inspired him to make art. As he once described his beloved neighborhood: “All these people on the street, various colors, so much pattern, so much movement, so much color, so much vitality, so much energy.”2 The textures of Harlem, and the narrative dynamism of the songs, Bible stories, sermons, and tales of his neighbors’ journeys north that he witnessed in church, shaped Lawrence’s approach to art making. He realized that through painting he, too, could give voice to the experiences of his people.
In 1934, he enrolled in his first art classes. By the time he was twenty-three, he had completed five narrative series on major people and events in black history, including Toussaint L’Ouverture (the leader of the Haitian Revolution), Harriet Tubman (the former slave and abolitionist who smuggled others to freedom on the Underground Railroad), and the Great Migration itself. He used descriptive titles; vibrant patterns and blocks of color; and simplified, angular figures and forms to distill epic narratives into powerfully direct images. This style, applied to topics ranging from neighborhood life to the experiences of black industrial laborers to the Civil Rights Movement, characterized his work throughout his career.
Through his vivid, accessible visual storytelling, Lawrence presented the richness and complexities of African American history and culture to his own community—and beyond. In 1941, with segregation in full force, he broke a racial barrier by becoming the first African American artist whose work was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art.
“A Child of the Great Migration” Tells the Tale
Between 1940 and 1941, while World War II raged and Harlem continued absorbing newly arriving black southerners, a young Jacob Lawrence was busy studying, listening, and painting. He was working on one of the five narrative series through which he chronicled the heroes, heroines, and watershed events of African American history, this one focused on the Great Migration. Before putting brush to panel, he spent months at the library, researching this mass relocation. He also listened to his parents, family, and neighbors tell the tales of their own northward journeys. And he wrote, completing the text for the short narratives that would serve as both titles and explanations for the sixty individual paintings that together comprise his celebrated Migration Series (1940–41).
“I worked very fast,” Lawrence once explained about his process. “From the concept and the drawings to the completion of the works … that may have taken six to eight months …”3 Needing materials that were both inexpensive and suited to his working method, he used quick-drying tempera paint and hardboard panels. Spreading out all of the panels simultaneously, he sketched images and scenes with a pencil. He then filled in his sketches with a limited range of colors, working with only one color at a time and applying it across all sixty panels. In his words: “I had a very simple palette. I went through all the panels painting yellows, greens, blues, so they’re all the same. I didn’t mix color. I left it pure, as it was, ’cause I wanted the series to be a unit. I consider it one work, not 60 works.”4
Lawrence focused on the people at the heart of the Great Migration, breaking apart this mass relocation of millions into intimate vignettes, often centered upon human figures. Each one is spare, in keeping with the artist’s belief that a lot of information could be conveyed through limited visual means. In the panel titled In the North the Negro had better educational facilities, for example, three young girls stand side-by-side facing a chalkboard, their right arms outstretched as they practice writing numbers. The scene is composed of geometric shapes, with rectangles forming the gray chalkboard and the brown walls of the classroom, triangles forming the girls’ braids, and a combination of these shapes forming their pastel-colored dresses. Like these girls, Lawrence benefitted from the better education made possible by his elders’ migration north. Through it, he educated others—black and white—when he embarked upon the making of Migration Series as both an artist and a teacher.
A brief, evocative description, account, or scene.
A rough or unfinished version of any creative work, often made to assist in the completion of a more finished work (noun); to make a rough drawing or painting (verb).
A soft and delicate shade of a color; a drawing medium of dried paste manufactured in crayon form made of ground pigments and a water-based binder; a picture or sketch drawn with this type of crayon.
A flat board, sometimes made of wood.
1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
An African American literary, artistic, and intellectual flowering, centered in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem and spanning the 1920s to the mid-1930s. Considered one of the most creative periods in American history, it fostered a new African American cultural identity.
Stiff board made of compressed and treated wood pulp.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
An object, outline, or shape having sharp corners, or angles.
A type of paint in which pigment is mixed with a water-soluble binder, such as egg yolk.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.
A series of events, objects, or compositional elements that repeat in a predictable manner.
A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.
Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.
The shape or structure of an object.
The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.
An American Tale
Lawrence made Migration Series to tell an important story that had been previously overlooked. He once said, “I do not look upon the story of the Blacks in America as a separate experience to the American culture but as a part of the American heritage and experience as a whole.”5
The narrative quality of Lawrence’s art is rooted in oral tradition. He explained, “I listened to ‘soapbox’ speakers orate on the Blacks, their history, social, and economic problems. In our nearly all black schools I heard stories of Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, John Brown, Denmark Vesey, etc. These were very dramatic stories—told in a most dramatic way. I started painting them in a narrative form.”6
Odds and Evens: The Purchase and Sharing of Migration Series
In 1941, shortly after Jacob Lawrence completed Migration Series, leading art dealer Edith Halpert featured it in her gallery. The response was swift: both The Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection purchased the series, with the thirty odd-numbered panels going to The Phillips, and the thirty even-numbered panels going to MoMA.