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Jacob Lawrence

War Series: Prayer
1947

On view
Floor 7

Date
1947

Classification
Paintings

Medium
Tempera on composition board

Dimensions
Overall: 16 1/8 × 20 1/4in. (41 × 51.4 cm) Image: 15 7/8 × 20 1/16 × 1/8in. (40.3 × 51 × 0.3 cm)

Accession number
51.6

Portfolio
War Series

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger

Rights and reproductions
© The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.”    

Visual Description

Jacob Lawrence’s War Series: Prayer is a horizontal painting measuring about 16 inches tall and 20 inches wide. The majority of the space is occupied by two abstracted human figures seen in profile in the foreground, both kneeling with their heads down and hands resting at their knees in prayer. The figure on the left’s body is rendered as a simplified, blocky, dark brown silhouette, with lighter brown shapes forming the coat-like garment draped over their shoulders. The body of the figure on the right, also rendered as a dark brown silhouette, wears a light green dress and green shoes; a color that is echoed in the fine streaks of paint indicating the sweep of their hair.

The background is a blue and green landscape of silhouetted mountains. The sky is shown as a hazy wash of horizontal strokes of lighter blue paint, delineated from the mountains by a royal blue contour. The outlined arch of the mountains frames the figures, precisely curving over the figure on the left to emphasize their bowed bodies. Along the bottom edge of the composition, a row of reed-like plants grow in short, diagonal sprigs. While the composition is simplified into planes of color, each facet of the picture has a great deal of variation in tone and texture. These variations create an energetic composition which balances the still nature of the scene. The matching shapes and parallel lines throughout this painting emphasize pattern and repetition, perhaps alluding to types of prayer. Lawrence often unified multiple works in a series through color choice, and in War Series the deep blues and browns appear across many of the panels.






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