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  His Harlem Community
Lawrence found inspiration in the Harlem community where he was raised. His early work depicts scenes of Harlem life—people, rooms, facades, sidewalks, streets, and storefronts—using bold colors and elemental shapes in commercial  tempera [poster] paints on lightweight brown paper. Several early paintings portray his immediate environment, including his studio, home, and family.

  Brownstones, 1958. Egg tempera on hardboard, 31 1/2 x 37 1/4 in. (80 x 94.6 cm). Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries; gift of Chauncey and Catherine Waddell
© Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries
Artwork © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation
For Lawrence the 1930s "was actually a wonderful period in Harlem although we didn't know this at the time. Of course it wasn't wonderful for our parents. For them, it was a struggle, but for the younger people coming along like myself, there was a real vitality in the community."1

In his early twenties, Lawrence began to develop a new brand of modernism, distilling subject matter based on his experience of Harlem and the lives and aspirations of African Americans. Some works reveal a satirical view of Harlem poverty, crime, racial tensions, and police brutality.

By 1936 Lawrence had established workspace at  Charles Alston's "306" studio at 306 West 141st Street. During this time he met such notable writers and activists as  Alain Locke,  Langston Hughes,  Ralph Ellison,  Claude McKay, and artists  Aaron Douglas,  Romare Bearden, and  Augusta Savage, all of whom emphasized cultural identity and black achievement.

Also in 1936, Lawrence took art classes with Augusta Savage, who had renovated a garage that she called the Uptown Art Laboratory (known as the Harlem Community Art Center today). From 1937 to 1939 Lawrence attended the American Artists School in New York on a scholarship, and in February 1938 he received recognition for his paintings of Harlem with a solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA at 135th Street. From 1939 to 1940, Lawrence made paintings with the easel section of the  WPA Federal Art Project.

1. Leslie King-Hammond, "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-class Community," in Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Dubois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), p. 69.

©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art