Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, USA on the 7th September 1917. He was one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. Widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures. Born into a poor family his rise to artistic prominence was rapid. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance which was an intellectual revival of African American art and literature centred in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City around the 1920’s and 30’s.
He had his first exhibition at 18 and by 1941 New York’s Downtown gallery was exhibiting his paintings. Jacob Lawrence was one of the first black artists to be represented by a major gallery. He tended to work by creating a series of paintings on a theme. His most important series are the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the black revolutionary general and founder of the Republic of Haiti. The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series that explored the anti-slavery movement. His most famous being, The Migration Series, inspired by the African-American Great Migration, the movement of 6 million black Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the industrial cities in the North and Midwest that occurred between 1916 and 1970’s.
By 1949 Lawrence was the most prominent black artist in America. Jacob Lawrence also taught, with his wife Gwendolyn Knight at the Black Mountain College in 1946. He was offered a professorship teaching art at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1971. In 1990 Jacob Lawrence received the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush.
Jacob Lawrence is celebrated not only for his artistic achievements but for the dramatic impact he had on succeeding generations of artists. He is noted for several firsts, being one of the first Black American artists to achieve widespread, mainstream acclaim. Jacob Lawrence was also one of the first black artists to be represented by a commercial gallery, the Downtown Gallery in New York. Jacob Lawrence was one of the few painters of his generation who grew up in a black community, to be taught primarily by black artists, and to be influenced by black people.
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