Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle Peabody Essex Museum Reunites the Celebrated Painting Series by Whitney Van Dyke, Peabody Essex Museum panel images © the jacob & gwendolyn night lawrence fdn., seattle/artists rights society (ars), ny
“What is the cost of democracy for all?” This is the central question artist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) tackles in his series of paintings featured in a new exhibition debuting in January at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, and touring nationally through 2021. The series, Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56), was created during the civil rights movement by one of the best-known black American artists of the 20th century. The series of thirty panels depicts pivotal moments in early American history, with an emphasis on the contributions that black people, Native Americans, and women made in shaping our nation’s founding and identity. Reunited for the first time in more than sixty years, the Struggle series brings American history to life through energetic, expressive paintings that hug the boundary between figuration and abstraction. For this reunion, 25 of the Struggle paintings are accounted for, while the locations of five remain unknown. Reproductions of the missing paintings, as well as of those too fragile to travel, are presented alongside the available originals. The paintings reflect Lawrence’s desire to “express the universal beauty of man’s continuous struggle” and his visual style conveys the physical, emotional, and ideological struggles inherent to the country’s founding.
robert w. kelley/the life picture collection/getty images
“Thousands of American citizens have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them: they have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation.” —Madison, 1 June 1812. Panel 19: Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 inches. (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross) Lawrence saw American history as a complex shared experience, and his paintings sought to create a broader, more encompassing narrative that celebrated prominent historical figures alongside those unsung and underrepresented. This new exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, presents Lawrence’s paintings in dialogue with contemporary black artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas— all artists whose work powerfully asserts that America’s struggles for democracy, justice, truth, and inclusion continue in earnest today. Lawrence broke through the color line of New York’s segregated art world when, at the age of 23, he created The Migration Series, a historical narrative that was instantly recognized as a masterpiece and became the first work by a black artist to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence’s artistic training was fostered by the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance: Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and Henry Bannarn. Too young to enroll in the Federal Arts Project, Lawrence took to his immediate environment for inspiration: he painted what he saw in his community. But this wasn’t enough. Young Lawrence began to research the history of his community and his family, finding great inspiration in the stories of leaders like Toussaint Overture, Harriet Tubman and John Brown. The Artist Jacob Lawrence. On the wall behind him story of how black communities migrated to Harlem, Chicago, Seattle, and other are Panels 26 and 27 from Struggle: From the cities across America, was his family’s story and served as inspiration for Migration. History of the American People, 1954–56. Struggle By mid-century, Lawrence had perfected his narrative invention of using modestly scaled panels to tell a sweeping epic. In 1949 the national political climate was fraught, freedoms were under threat, and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. In this context, Lawrence began his research for Struggle: From the History of the American People, a narrative that sought to visualize a more complete—and more complex—version of American history. His goal was to “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” Lawrence spent countless hours at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (now the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture) poring over historical texts that included first-person accounts, letters, and coded messages from individuals on all sides of the American Revolution. For more than five years, he read and researched, 36
SEA HISTORY 169, WINTER 2019–20