Jacob Lawrence: Since 1917
Atlantic City is a very cold and dark town. Outside the success of the major casinos, there is little to talk about. Today, some parts of the city has the look of a poverty-stricken slum. Growing up in this town leaves very little promises, and the public school system is still atrocious. This town was supposed to be a city of dreams, but it turned into an American nightmare for many local residents. Even today, it is not a great place to raise a family.
In your own mind, picture a young African American boy, who grew up in this rough place, and imagine how humble beginnings can still produce a man of tremendous valor and genius. Young Jacob Lawrence spent the first thirteen years of his life in this place. A place that leaves virtually no inspiration for artists and no real education either; consequently, the first thing Lawrence’s mother did when she had enough money, was to move to a place that put her child in line for scholastic and professional success. At thirteen, Jacob Lawrence’s mother moved his family to Harlem, New York. This move occurred during the Harlem Renaissance, which eventually became all the inspiration and education that Jacob Lawrence could ever want or need.
Lawrence did not find success immediately in Harlem. He dropped out of school at sixteen, and he was forced to work dead-end, laborious jobs. Harlem at this time was booming with economic success, and many great writers, artists, and voices of the African American community were just reaching national attention. It was a place pushed by progress. It was everything Atlantic City was not. The neighborhoods sparkled with culture, and people aligned the streets with new fashions including the invention of automobiles. Poet and Playwright Langston Hughes, Novelist Wallace Henry Thurman and Poet Jean Toomer were voices of a generation that would be remembered forever.
When Lawrence’s mother brought him to this place, he could not possibly avoid success and fame. Today, colleges throughout the country have entire semesters dedicated to the study of this place and this time period. It is easy to picture Lawrence strolling down the streets of Harlem to his art workshops that his mother enrolled him in. This movement took over music as well, and elegant jazz clubs became a hot commodity in the city. If I could meet jazz artists, such as Duke Ellington, or even get a chance to just witness his run to fame, I would be inspired to develop artwork dedicated to this culture too. If you take a look at some of the infamous paintings Lawrence has created, you can immediately understand what the Harlem Renaissance did for this man. In one image, he has an extremely tall African American man playing the saxophone. The image places the man in a flamboyant blue suit with a blue tie. It reminds me of the wardrobes seen in the movie “Casino.” It has a gangster essence, but that was the style and that was Harlem. In another picture, Lawrence depicts a seven-story brownstone, which is still a noticeable characteristic of this part of the city. If this phenomenon did not escape from the pitfalls of Atlantic City, he may have never became the legend that he is today. His paintings that capture some of the aspects of his childhood are exceptional. In one painting he depicts a young boy playing the saxophone phone, and in another, he depicts a young lady playing the clarinet. These instruments were considered the instruments of the poor, as opposed to the piano. Paintings such as this, provide a level of education, and with every stroke you can see where his inspiration comes from. According to Alicia Anstead of Harvard Arts Beat, “artists in this country don’t get any more American than Lawrence, who spent his life exploring shape and color through African-American experiences.”
Jacob Lawrence is not just a subject of the Harlem Renaissance, he developed hundreds of paintings up until his death in 2000. In fact, the majority of his career was spent outside of this movement, but it is important to remember how influential your upbringing can be. If Lawrence stayed in Atlantic City, he might still be dealing cards at The Trump Plaza. His work provides a history for African Americans. In one particular painting, Lawrence has two high school students painting the inscription “Black History” on a chalkboard. He must have known all along that the aftermath of his work would provide support for African Americans all over the U.S. In the fifties he taught design and figure drawing at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, Jacob Lawrence became a central figure of the art department at the University of Washington. I can hardly imagine how interesting his lectures must have been. This is a prime example of how this Renaissance hero gave back to a society that accepted his outstanding efforts. He has also produced exemplified charity works, and major scholarship foundations. His brilliant success has been acknowledged since Lawrence was twenty years old. He was truly a remarkable man, and his paintings will be treasured for many decades to come.
Today, Lawrence’s paintings are in galleries all over the United States, including The White House. His painting, “The Builders,” hangs in the Green Room, and it was purchased for $2.5 million. When Jacob Lawrence died in 2000, America lost a great inspiration and a great American; as a result, his legacy will continue. He came from humble beginnings and he managed to make himself a household name. Whenever someone speaks of The Harlem Renaissance or African American art from the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence will always be mentioned.