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Early Childhood
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His Harlem Community
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Picturing Narratives
New Artistic Directions
New Themes
His Life's Work

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  Early Childhood
Lawrence painted not just what he saw, but also what he heard from Harlem’s oral historians. He became interested in African and African-American history and culture and researched and chronicled the lives of  Toussaint L'Ouverture,  Frederick Douglass,  Harriet Tubman, and  John Brown. His narratives were created on small, identically sized panels with accompanying texts.

Jacob Lawrence at his one-artist exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, 1944. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence
In 1940-41 Lawrence created a sixty-panel narrative, The Migration of the Negro, based on the experience of his family, the recollections of people in his community, and research that he conducted in the  Schomburg Collection. This powerful portrayal of migration communicates the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans who, between 1900 and 1940, moved from the agricultural communities of the South to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest in search of a better life. Lawrence conveyed his message through the texts that accompanied each panel. Artist  Gwendolyn Knight prepared the gesso panels and helped write the captions. Knight and Lawrence married in 1941.

The Migration Series was exhibited at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery and in 1942 began a two-year national tour. As the first African American to join Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, Lawrence found himself living in two different worlds. For the rest of his life he would struggle between his experiences as an African American and his acceptance in the white art community.

The experience of creating historical works in a series format led Lawrence to make discrete images that functioned as thematic groupings. Between 1942 and 1943 he made a group of thirty paintings that again focused on life in Harlem. His themes included black working women, health concerns, leisure time, and the role of religion and spirituality in people's daily lives. In these works, Lawrence portrayed the community in bold colors, repeating patterns, and asymmetrical compositions. He also incorporated the rhythms, breaks, and changes of jazz music into his visual representations of the Harlem environment.

In 1942 Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard as a Stewards Mate, the only rank then available for black Americans. He was stationed in St. Augustine, Florida. Lawrence served one year in a segregated regiment. In 1944 he was reassigned first to a weather ship in Boston, and then to a troopship, where he served as Coast Guard Artist, documenting the experience of war in Italy, England, Egypt, and India. While he was on the troopship, he produced about forty-eight paintings (now lost) documenting the lives of men in World War II. These works are now lost. After his tour of duty ended in 1946, Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to paint his War Series.

©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art