Artists Heroes
Jacob Lawrence was one of the first African American artists to gain recognition on a national scale. His paintings told the story of the African American experience. Some of his series included the migration series, about the migration of African Americans from the south to the north, Harlem, the 1960s civil rights movement, as well as series on figures like Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.

Jacob Lawrence

by Kristin Myer

Jacob Lawrence
Carl Van Vechten / Public domain via Wikimedia

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City on September 7, 1917. His parents were part of the Great Migration of Black Americans (1916-1930). One million people left the rural South for the urban North during this period. He moved with his family to Easton, Pennsylvania. After his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Philadelphia.

In 1927, his mother moved to New York and placed Lawrence and his siblings in foster homes. In 1930, Lawrence, age 13, and his brother and sister moved to Harlem to live with their mother. This period was The Depression, and people had difficulty surviving. Lawrence worked to help support his family.

He began taking art classes with Charles Alston at an after-school arts and crafts program. At the age of 15, he decided to become a painter. Jacob loved color. He used bright, bold color to dramatize the one-dimensional aspect of his work. This flat appearance is Lawrence's signature style. Also, Lawrence frequently liked to tell a story with his paintings. His paintings told the stories of black history or stories of his own life experiences.

Lawrence was able to survive as an artist thanks to the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration, which hired writers, artists and musicians to document American history. This period was known as the Harlem Renaissance because the WPA trained artists, musicians, writers and other creative artists. In 1938, Lawrence received a WPA Federal Writer's Project (later Federal Workers' Project) assignment. In 1940, he received a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund and he started his Migration Series, 60 panels in all.

In 1941, at the age of 24, he became the first African-American artist to cross over the "color line" and exhibit his work in galleries and museums previously only showing the works of white artists. He started in the Downtown Gallery in New York, which included the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection. From the 1940s to the 1960s, he lived in New York City. In 1963, he began printmaking.


In 1964, Lawrence visited Africa, which inspired his Nigerian Series (1964-1965). In 1971, he moved to Seattle to teach at the University of Washington. Starting in 1993, Lawrence illustrated (or wrote and illustrated) many books for children about African-American history, and created the art for a new edition of Aesop's Fables.

Lawrence died on June 9, 2000 at the age of 82.

Page created on 6/4/2004 10:48:05 AM

Last edited 8/31/2020 6:46:35 PM

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Related Links

Smithsonian | Jacob Lawrence Bio - The Smithsonian's exclusive mission is the acquisition, promotion, and interpretation of the work of artists in the United States.
Whitney Museum of Art | Jacob Lawrence - Over a 65-year career, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an impassioned observer and storyteller whose art documented both the African-American experience as well as the larger human struggle for freedom and social justice.
Phillips Collection | Jacob Lawrence Migration Series - The Phillips Collection is an "intimate museum combined with an experiment station."–Duncan Phillips, 1926 The Phillips Collection is an exceptional collection of modern and contemporary art in a dynamic environment for collaboration, innovation, engagement with the world, scholarship, and new forms of public participation.

Extra Info

Books illustrated or written and illustrated by Jacob Lawrence:

John Brown, One Man Against Slavery, 1993 by Gwen Everett.

Harriet and the Promised Land, 1993

The Great Migration: An American Story, 1995

Toussaint L'Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti's Freedom by Walter Dean Meyers

Aesop's Fables, 1997

Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence, 1998 (with John Duggleby).

Related Books


Author Info

Mr. Lawrence is my hero, because throughout his life, he did what he loved, which was painting. His artwork said a lot about being black in America. I salute you Mr. Lawrence!