Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle

By Peggy Roalf   Friday September 4, 2020

At the height of the Cold War, and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, the celebrated Modernist painter, Jacob Lawrence completed his research for the telling of an American History. This was the culmination of five years combing the archives for letters, newspapers, maps and other documents, at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture), that would tell the story of building a nation through the voices of the people who did the work.

The American Struggle: From the History of the American People, ultimately resulted in 30 small paintings in tempera on panel that portray the action shifted from celebrated figures such as Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton to the unseen—but clearly identified—historical players who had remain obscured among pages of documents hidden in the library. 



Lawrence, according to Michael Kimelman of the New York Times, was a product of the Harlem Renaissance and a history painter whose art remains as timely today as ever. During the ’40s and ’50s, when battle lines in the art world were drawn between abstractionists and social realists, he pursued a middle path. During the ’60s, when Black artists more militant than he was said his art wasn’t radical enough, he remained true to his vision. He is still best known for The Migration series, a group of sixty paintings and texts that was on view at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015, so this group of paintings opens a window onto the artist's later, far more complexly layered work.



The paintings now on view at The Met, in vivid hues that are set off by rich earth tones, blur the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. Many of the scenes are populated by angular and tension-filled figures, with thin lines of blood often dripping down from wounds. His interpretation of George Washington crossing the Delaware does not show the general standing majestically at the helm of a boat, as seen in Emanuel Leutze’s famed painting of the same subject. Instead, Lawrence’s preoccupation is with the nameless soldiers who fought and died for American independence. Here, these heavily cloaked figures are shown huddled in a small boat, their bayonets jutting above the river like spikes.




Each painting is accompanied by a historical quote, from a known or unknown player in the drama. In The Battle of New Orleans (above), we read, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” The wall label informs us that the text is drawn from a speech by Virginia statesman Patrick Henry defending the colonial cause. Its reference to enslavement galvanized patriots to demand liberty from the British—an argument deemed hypocritical to some, coming from a Southern slave holder. The mural-like qualities of this panel succinctly express Lawrence's admiration for the work of José Clemente Orozco, who was active in New York City in the 1930s.


According to Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper, Lawrence’s series was purchased privately in 1959 and later sold off piecemeal. The whereabouts of five of the paintings are unknown, and several others were deemed too delicate to travel; they are represented at The Met by black-and-white reproductions. But this is the first time in more 60 years that the series is is being presented in its entirety, accompanied a catalogue with texts by noted historians.

The American Struggle: From the History of the American People continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 1. Info It then travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama; the Seattle Museum of Art, Seattle, Washington; and The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Please consult museum websites as the original tour dates have shifted forward due to COVID-19.


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