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Jacob Lawrence

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One the most distinguished artists of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City and spnt part of his child hood in Pennsylvania. After his parents split up in 1924, he went with his mother and siblings to New York, settling in Harlem. "He trained as a painter at the Harlem Art Workshop, inside the New York Public Library's 113 5th Street branch. Younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Lawrence was also at an angle to them: he was not interested in the kind of idealized, fake-primitive images of blacks - the Noble Negroes in Art Deco guise - that tended to be produced as an antidote to the toxic racist stereotypes with which white popular culture had flooded America since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, he gained self-confidence from the Harlem cultural milieu - in particular, from the art critic Alain Locke, a Harvard-trained esthete (and America's first black Rhodes scholar) who believed strongly in the possibility of an art created by blacks, which could speak explicitly to African-Americans and still embody the values, and self-critical powers, of modernism. Or, in Locke's own words, "There is in truly great art no essential conflict between racial or national traits and universal human values." This would not sit well with today's American cultural separatists who trumpet about the incompatibility of American experiences - "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand" - but it was vital to Lawrence's own growth as an artist. Locke perceived the importance of the Great Migration, not just as an economic event but as a cultural one, in which countless blacks took over the control of their own lives, which had been denied them in the South: When years later he told an interviewer that "I am the black community," he was neither boasting nor kidding. He had none of the alienation from Harlem that was felt by some other black artists of the 1930s, like the expatriate William Johnson.

Jacob Lawrence is celebrated for his insightful depictions of American and, in particular, African American life. Best known for his epic series of paintings on such subjects as the lives of Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L'Ouverture, he has also created numerous prints, murals, and drawings. Among the latter are a delightful set of twenty-three illustrations for the classic Aesop's Fables. These bold and expressive pen-and-ink drawings are on view at the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire, from April 10 through June 20, 1999 in an exhibition entitled Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables. This is the only northeastern venue for this nationally touring exhibition. Above left: Jacob Lawrence in his studio, 1994. Photo by Spike Mafford, courtesy of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery

Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence moved to New York City with his family in 1930, not long after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. There he studied with painter Charles Alston, whose studio was a gathering place for many of the great African American artists and intellectuals of that era. Inspired by the discussions he encountered at Alston's studio, Lawrence developed the keen interest in African American history and culture that has informed much of his artistic work. Right: Aesop's Fable, "The Two Frogs," 1969, courtesy of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery

Lawrence is best known for his epic series that grew out of this influential time. Comprising as many as sixty paintings each, these series depict such subjects as the successful Haitian slave revolt led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman's work in the Underground Railroad, the life of Abolitionist writer and orator Frederick Douglass, and the Great Migration of African Americans from southern farms to northern cities.

Completed in 1941, the Migration series catapulted the twenty-four-year-old artist to national prominence. The series was shown at New York's Downtown Gallery and subsequently was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection, making Lawrence both the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York gallery and the first to be represented in MoMA's collection. His work has since earned a place in the collections of nearly every major American museum--including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art--and has been the subject of three major nationally touring retrospectives. Among Lawrence's numerous honors and awards are twenty honorary doctorates from institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, New York University, Howard University, and Amherst College. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Bush in 1990 and he is a member of both the Academy of Arts and Letters and the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Stylistically, Lawrence is known for his felicitous marriage of a compositional language based on cubism and a flair for draftsmanship and characterization. A master storyteller, Lawrence possesses an engaging gift for narrative that is particularly evident in the Fables illustrations. Deftly capturing the fables' charm, humor, and wisdom, Lawrence's works reflect both the whimsy and the severity of these timeless morality tales that have fascinated him from his youth. Interestingly, although intrigued by the use of animals as main characters, Lawrence first sketched the scenarios with human figures, replacing them only later with their anthropomorphized forms. These figures are rendered with a rich, dynamic tension and vitality emphasized by the high contrast black and white color scheme. Left: Aesop's Fable, "The Council of Mice," 1969, courtesy of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery

Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables presents a rare opportunity to see one of Lawrence's series in its entirety. With their combination of sophisticated technique and whimsical subject matter, these images hold considerable appeal for adults and children alike.

Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables was first published by Windmill Books/Simon and Schuster in 1970. In 1997 the University of Washington Press issued a new edition that includes five works omitted from the original. This exhibition was organized by Francine Seders Gallery

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