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Jacob Lawrence was an American painter, and the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the 20th century. He is best known for his Migration Series.
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Born in New Jersey but raised in New York City's Harlem, Jacob Lawrence was the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the 20th century. Known for producing narrative collections like the Migration Series and War Series, he brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors. He also taught, and spent 15 years as a professor at the University of Washington.
"This is my genre...the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind as realized in the teeming black ghetto."
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 7, 1917, Jacob Lawrence moved with his parents to Easton, Pennsylvania, at the age of 2. When his parents separated in 1924, his mother deposited him and his two younger siblings in foster care in Philadelphia, and went to work in New York City. When he was 13, Lawrence joined his mother in Harlem.
Lawrence was introduced to art shortly after his arrival, when his mother enrolled him in Utopia Children’s Center, which had an after-school art program. He dropped out of school at 16 but took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop with Charles Aston and frequently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1937, Lawrence won a scholarship to the American Artists School in New York. When he graduated in 1939, he received funding from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. He had already developed his own style of modernism, and began creating narrative series, painting 30 or more paintings on one subject. He completed his best-known series, Migration of the Negro or simply The Migration Series, in 1941. The series was exhibited at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in 1942, making Lawrence the first African-American to join the gallery.
At the outbreak of World War II, Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard. After being briefly stationed in Florida and Massachusetts, he was assigned to be the Coast Guard artist aboard a troopship, documenting the experience of war around the world. He produced 48 paintings during this time, all of which have been lost.
When his tour of duty ended, Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship and painted his War Series. He was also invited by Josef Albers to teach the summer session at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers reportedly hired a private train car to transport Lawrence and his wife to the college so they wouldn’t be forced to transfer to the “colored” car when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
Back in New York after his stint in the south, Lawrence continued to paint. He grew depressed, however, and in 1949, he checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens, where he stayed for 11 months. He painted as an inpatient, and the work created during this time differs significantly from his other work, with subdued colors and people who appear resigned or in agony.
After leaving Hillside, Lawrence turned his attention to the theater. In 1951, he painted works based on memories of performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also began teaching again, first at Pratt Institute and later the New School for Social Research and the Art Students League.
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They are the famous African-American artists who have exquisitely shared portrayals of historic events and individuals, cultural perspectives, and the experiences and struggles of minorities through their artwork. Examine our list of pivotal black artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, who helped to bring African-American and Latino experiences into the elite art world through his graffiti works; Augusta Savage, a sculptor and leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, who experienced racial discrimination by an art program's selection committee; and Kara Walker, who has used paper silhouettes to depict race and gender relations.
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