BAIA BITS: Jacob Lawrence


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board I Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

In July 1949, a depressed 32-year-old African American male voluntarily entered Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York to receive treatment. A half-century later, in April 2000, that same man explained his post-World War II hospital visit in a tape-recorded interview with Jackson Frost of The Phillips Collection:

I think I was having problems like many of the former servicemen had coming out of the service. I guess there is maybe confusion, and you want to get things straight. You realize this will be a good experience to have, this hospital experience… Fortunately they had places like this where you could go for help.”

The depressed man’s name? Jacob Lawrence.

Despite being well on his way to becoming the most widely acclaimed African American artist of the 20th century, Lawrence was struggling with a postwar trauma that the hospital provided him the time and space to address. In this space, his art became his therapy as he completed the “Hospital Series” while at Hillside before regaining his perspective and continuing his historic career.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, Lawrence’s parents separated when he was seven, and his mother moved her children to Harlem when he was twelve. There, the bright teen spent time at an afterschool program in arts and crafts run by painter Charles Alston, who immediately recognized Lawrence’s artistic abilities. After dropping out of high school before his junior year to work odd jobs and support his struggling family, Lawrence joined up with the Harlem Community Art Center under sculptor Augusta Savage and began painting local urban life. About the same time, he was mentored by a Harlem resident known as “Professor Seifert” who encouraged Lawrence to visit the nearby Schomburg Library and study everything he could on African and African American culture.

The young painter did, and the results, over time, were both historic and prolific. Lawrence combined his growing knowledge with his unparalleled artistic gifts to produce numerous series of legendary works inspired by the lives of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, along with such subjects as War, The South, the History of the American People, and, perhaps his best-known series, The Migration of the Negro.

By 1950, after being stationed overseas with the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and being treated for depression at Hillside, Lawrence was well recognized as the most celebrated African American painter in the country. In the 1960s and 70s, he traveled to Africa and lived, for a time, in Nigeria while also teaching at several universities. Lawrence continued to paint, teach, and impact the art world up until his death in June 2000.

In 2015, the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, GA displayed relevant prints from Lawrence for the popular exhibit, “History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence.” 

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