Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence and wife Gwen Knight

Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) was an African American painter; he was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. Lawrence referred to his style as “dynamic cubism”, though by his own account the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem.[1]

Lawrence is among the best-known twentieth century African American painters, a distinction shared with Romare Bearden. Lawrence was only in his twenties when his “Migration Series” made him nationally famous. The series of paintings was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune magazine. The series depicted the epic Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.


Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans. Lawrence’s work often portrayed important periods in African-American history. The artist was twenty-one years old when his series of paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture was shown in an exhibit of African American artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This impressive work was followed by a series of paintings of the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series of pieces about the abolitionist John Brown. Lawrence was only twenty-three when he completed the sixty-panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro. The series, a moving portrayal of the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the North after World War I, was shown in New York, and brought him national recognition. In the 1940s Lawrence was given his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and became the most celebrated African American painter in the country.

Shortly after moving to Washington State, Lawrence did a series of five paintings on the westward journey of African American pioneer George Washington Bush. These paintings are now in the collection of the State of Washington History Museum.

He illustrated an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables for the University of Washington Press in 1997.

Lawrence taught at several schools, and continued to paint until a few weeks before his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. His last public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.


Lawrence was honored as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian when the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1970 for his outstanding achievements. In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a major retrospective of his work, and in 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1998 he received Washington State’s highest honor, The Washington Medal of Merit. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990.

His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the Brooklyn Museum.In May 2007, the White House Historical Association (via the White House Acquisition Trust) purchased Lawrence’s The Builders (1947) for $2.5 million at auction. The painting now hangs in the White House Green Room.

When Lawrence died on June 9, 2000, the New York Times called him “one of America’s leading modern figurative painters” and “among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience.” His wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, died several years later in 2005. Before Lawrence died, the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation was formally established. Today, it serves as both Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence’s official Estates, and maintains a searchable archive of nearly 1,000 images of their work. The U.S. copyright representative for the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.

Confrontation at the Bridge


The Shoemaker

The Street


Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints (1963-2000), Peter T. Nesbett (Author)

The Great Migration: An American Story, Jacob Lawrence (Author, Illustrator)

Jacob Lawrence (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists), Mike Venezia (Author)

Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence, John Duggleby (Author)

Jacob Lawrence in the City, Susan Goldman Rubin (Author)

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