Jacob Lawrence’s Modern Lens on American History

The Battle of Bennington, painted in 1954 – …again the rebels rushed furiously on our men. – a Hessian soldier

Nearly 65 years ago, a young WWII veteran immersed himself in history books up in Harlem and envisioned a modern way to bring key episodes of early American history to life on canvas.  Today, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art are pouring over his 60-panel series – reassembled for the first time in decades – in the remarkable exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, on view through November 1.

Known for his enormous body of work chronicling the African-American experience, Lawrence’s American history series is largely unknown. That’s why attending the show and working your way around the room to learn about each episode is such a revelation.  Which episodes did he pick? How did he use modern, angular style to depict the struggle for independence and economic progress?

Sacagawea and her brother reunite

His series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” brings forgotten pieces of history to life and depicts many from a new angle – Patrick Henry’s rousing revolutionary rhetoric, regional skirmishes against mercenaries, the enlisted man’s view of the perilous Delaware River crossing, and treasonous whispers that risked undermining the Continentals.

Inspired by the Mexican muralists, WPA storytellers, and the city around him, Lawrence chose dynamic composition, symbolic colors, and an everyday person’s experience of historic events to create an intriguing, historic, and emotional narrative. Take a look at some of our favorites in the exhibition on Flickr.

1940s American history book opened to map of Lewis & Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition

Inside the gallery, the Met presents two of the books that Lawrence consulted as he planned the series as well as his funding proposal to produce a much more expansive work from the American Revolution through World War I. The notes on display show that Lawrence had the parts of history that could tell the full American story all thought out. Unfortunately, the series wasn’t funded.

The panels on view are hung in the order they were presented at Charles Allan’s gallery in 1956-1957, beginning with the lead-up to the American Revolution. Lawrence tells the story his way through conflicts, close-ups, and long shots, working in stories of Black combatants and women, like Margaret Corbin who manned the guns at Fort Washington.

1956 painting of the Battle of Lake Erie – if we fall, let us fall like men, and expire together in one common struggle – Henry Clay, 1813

Many of the events he depicts from the early 1800s have largely been forgotten –impressment of sailors by the British, the Battle of Lake Erie, and the destruction of Washington D.C., and the Battle of New Orleans. The series ends with epic undertakings by everyday Americans – the building of the Erie Canal and the westward migration to the Ohio and beyond. It makes you want to learn more.

If you are in New York, be sure to see this important show in person; otherwise, take a look through this series in the Met’s website. Click on each image to read the backstory of Lawrence’s take on that slice of American history and the quotes he selected for each work. Go on a visual journey with an American modernist master here.

Listen in to this recent program produced by the Met in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – the same library where Lawrence did his research in the 1950s.

Listen as the Schomburg’s director Kevin Young, arts curator Tami Lawson, and the Getty’s associate curator LeRonn P. Brooks discuss Jacob Lawrence, his scholarship, the WPA, Harlem, and the milieu from which his art emerged. Hear how a genius was made:

Other major works by Jacob Lawrence are on view at the Whitney Museum – he is a featured New York artist in Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art and his War Series, created after he returned from serving in the Coast Guard in World War II, has its own special gallery inside the collections show on the seventh floor.

 

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