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Jacob Lawrence focused his artistic career on telling the story of the struggle of African Americans for freedom and justice from the Civil War through the end of the twentieth century. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the vibrant milieu of Harlem in the 1930s. At the age of fourteen, he began making regular visits to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and studying the techniques and pictorial conventions of Egyptian and Renaissance art, which he would later incorporate in his multi-part compositions. As a teenager, he was encouraged to pursue art by the painter Charles Alston, in whose studio Lawrence carved out a small workspace. There, he was introduced to other artists, writers, and philosophers who promoted black achievement and strong cultural identity.
In the early 1930s, Lawrence took art classes sponsored by the Works Progress Administration; he later studied at the Harlem Art Workshop. In 1937, he enrolled at the American Artists School in New York and soon had his first solo show at the Harlem YMCA. After attending classes in the mornings, he spent afternoons in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, where he was inspired by his readings to create the Toussaint L’Ouverture series (1937-1938): forty-one small paintings that address Haiti’s struggle for independence in the nineteenth century. Painted in tempera on paper, they anticipate Lawrence’s subsequent preference for water-based media. This series led Lawrence to embark on pictorial biographies of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown.
In 1940 and 1941, Lawrence completed a series of sixty paintings entitled Migration of the Negro, which collectively portray the story of African-American migration from the rural South to the industrial northern states in the 1920s. First exhibited in New York, the paintings brought him national acclaim, and in 1941 he was the first African-American artist to be represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The following year, Lawrence made a series of thirty paintings depicting views of Harlem streets and interiors drawn from everyday life, and in 1946, he began work on the War Series, a narrative based on his World War II service with the Coast Guard. In the 1950s and 60s, Lawrence focused on the politics surrounding racism and the civil rights movement. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, he spent much of his time on commissions, including murals and prints. In his later years, Lawrence returned to his earlier themes, taking up issues of desegregation in the South, among other topics.