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Jacob Lawrence

War Series: The Letter

1946

Jacob Lawrence, War Series: The Letter, 1946  51.11
Jacob Lawrence, War Series: The Letter, 1946. Egg tempera on composition board, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger  51.11 For Teachers
© 2009 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

about this work

Jacob Lawrence’s War Series describes first-hand the sense of regimentation, community, and displacement that the artist experienced during his service in the United States Coast Guard during World War II. Lawrence served his first year in St. Augustine, Florida, in a racially segregated regiment where he was first given the rank of Steward’s Mate, the only one available to black Americans at the time. He befriended a commander who shared his interest in art, however, and he went on to serve in an integrated regiment as Coast Guard Artist, documenting the war in Italy, England, Egypt, and India. Those works are lost, but in 1946 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to paint the War Series. The fourteen panels of the series present a narrative which progresses from Shipping Out to Victory. In the panels, Lawrence adopted the silhouetted figures, prominent eyes, and simplified, overlapping profiles that are typical of Egyptian wall painting. And like the ancient painters, he transformed groups of figures into surface patterns, eschewing modeling and perspective in favor of the immediacy of bold, abstracted forms. In their alternation between vertical and horizontal formats, single figures and groups, and intense action and contemplation, the fourteen panels of the War Series testify to Lawrence’s belief that one cannot “tell a story in a single painting.”

Beth Venn and Adam D. Weinberg, eds. Frames of Reference: Looking at American Art. 1900-1950; Works from the Whitney Museum of American Art. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with University of California Press, 1999), 104.

 

look closer

What do you think is happening in this painting?

Where might this be taking place?

Who might that person be?

What do you think is written in the letter this person has received?

Activities

In 1946, Jacob Lawrence began work on the War Series. The series presents a narrative that describes the sense of regimentation, community, and displacement that the artist experienced during his service in the United States Coast Guard. The fourteen panels of the War Series testify to Lawrence’s belief that one cannot “tell a story in a single painting.” 1

As a class, look at The Letter and think about the story Lawrence might be trying to tell. What might be happening here? Who might this person be? The white square on the table is the letter that Lawrence refers to in the title of this work, but it is devoid of any words. Have your students write the letter in the painting. What does it say? What kind of news does it bring?

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