Part 2: Behind the Scenes with Jacob Lawrence and the Migration Series

Phillips Head Librarian Karen Schneider shares the story behind Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Read part 1 of this blog post.

Learn more on the Phillips’s Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website.

Lawrence’s approach to painting was unique. A close look reveals a small hole in each of the four corners of the panels. Lawrence filled the back of a piece of blank paper with pencil marks, and tacked the paper to the four corners of each panel. Through a process akin to using carbon paper, the image was transferred to the surface of each painting by following the outlines of the drawing with a pencil. As Chief Conservator Elizabeth Steele has written, Lawrence’s work was a balance between precision and spontaneity, representation and abstraction. The pencil drawing gave him an overall structure for each work, but he felt free to improvise. Conservation studies of Panel 53 reveal that Lawrence improvised the free flowing design on the women’s dress and feather boa.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 53

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 53: African American, long-time residents of northern cities met the migrants with aloofness and disdain., 1940-41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Instead of the typical approach of completing each panel before moving on to the next, Lawrence applied all areas that were black in panels one through 60. He then returned to the first panel, moving through all 60 panels in a progression from darkest to lightest colors. No preparatory or color drawings exist. It is remarkable that Lawrence could keep the color arrangements so clearly in his mind. Tempera paint dries quickly and is not a forgiving medium, so any mistakes would be immediately apparent. Remarkably, the 60 paneled series does not contain any visible mistakes.

Visitors may be surprised to learn that The Phillips Collection owns only half of the series. When Lawrence exhibited the series at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, Adele Levy, daughter of Julius Rosenwald and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, fell in love with Panel 46. She acquired the even numbered panels and gave them to The Museum of Modern Art. The two museums have benefited from the arrangement, as the two parts of the series provide a meaningful narrative, from slavery and indentured servitude in the south to a new life in the north. The entire series has been reunited on several occasions.

Jacob Lawrence, Industries attempted to board their labor in quarters that were oftentimes very unhealthy. Labor camps were numerous., 1940–41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel 46: Industries attempted to board their labor in quarters that were oftentimes very unhealthy. Labor camps were numerous., 1940–41, Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy

I was fortunate to meet Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight on the occasion of one of Lawrence’s exhibitions at the Phillips in 1993. Knight, a painter whose work is in The Phillips Collection, had the regal bearing of the dancer that she was. They went to Lowell Elementary School in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. The students had been asked to create works of art that were inspired by The Migration Series, and several of the students received awards for their work. Lawrence could have easily given a general acknowledgement to all of the students at once. Instead, as a slide of each student’s work was projected on a screen, he bent down to tell each child what he found unique in their work―perhaps the way they used pattern or the way they juxtaposed complementary colors to make their composition sing. Afterward, he addressed all of the students, telling them, “There is no such thing as failure in art.” He offered several possible approaches to a work that the students deemed unsuccessful, including returning to the painting after weeks or months, turning the piece in another direction, or moving on to another painting, inspired by the work of art that seemed to be a failure. As an artist I found Lawrence’s words inspiring and I think that the children did too. I often tell adults this story when giving a spotlight tour on The Migration Series. They appear touched by Lawrence’s message and seem to take it to heart.

Part 1: Behind the Scenes with Jacob Lawrence and the Migration Series

Phillips Head Librarian Karen Schneider shares the story behind Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. 

Learn more on the Phillips’s Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which chronicles the migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north between the two world wars and beyond, is a unique masterpiece of storytelling. Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City on his parents’ way north from South Carolina and Virginia. When Lawrence was a boy, his mother could not afford to keep him, and he lived in a series of foster homes until she sent for him to join her in Harlem when he was 13. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, with artists, musicians, and writers all contributing their creative vitality. As a teenager, through the luck of a free after school art program, Lawrence discovered a powerful means of expression. He studied with Charles Alston, one of the few African Americans at that time with a master’s degree.

Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (Italian, Siena or Cortona ca. 1400–1450 Siena), 1433–35, Tempera and gold on wood, 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 in., Maitland F. Griggs Collection, Bequest of Maitland F. Griggs, 1943, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (ca. 1400–1450), The Journey of the Magi, 1433–35, Tempera and gold on wood, 8 1/2 x 11 3/4 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Maitland F. Griggs Collection, Bequest of Maitland F. Griggs, 1943

As a teenager, Lawrence walked the 50 blocks from his apartment in Harlem to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Lawrence, as an African American, was permitted in the museum, he was closely watched by museum security staff, contributing to an uncomfortable atmosphere. Young Lawrence gravitated toward works from the Renaissance, including The Journey of the Magi, a painting by 15th-century Italian artist Sassetta that shows a procession of figures walking down a steep slope, with the Star of Bethlehem hovering before them and a V shaped line of birds flying above. Decades later, when the artist was in his 60s, he joined New York Times arts reporter Michael Kimmelman for a visit to the Met. Lawrence immediately made a beeline for the same work, where he noted the painting’s power and deceptive simplicity. He said, “I can’t think of a better term to describe the effect than magic.” As Kimmelman observed, Lawrence noted its geometry, simplicity, vivid colors, and the way it tells its story directly, qualities that described his own art. He used aspects of Sassetta’s composition in Panel 3 of The Migration Series which depicts African Americans on their journey North, carrying sacks and suitcases, with a V shape line of birds dotting the sky, just as in Sassetta’s panel. When their visit was over, Lawrence turned to a guard to ask directions. The guard recognized Lawrence: “I just want to tell you how important your work is, and how much it’s meant to me.” The artist smiled warmly, shook the guard’s hand, and left the museum.

Lawrence could not afford expensive art supplies, so he used tempera paints that could be purchased for a dime. He deliberately limited his palette, which he thought created a more powerful composition, stripped to its bare essentials. When he was a young man, he created series of works comprising 20 or 30 panels each on such heroes of African American history as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Lawrence decided to paint a series about the Great Migration and received a grant of $1,000 from the Rosenwald Foundation which enabled him to work in a studio with neither heat nor running water for a year. The studio’s size was such that he was able to work on all 60 panels at once. Ever the teacher, Lawrence included his wish to exhibit The Migration Series in schools as part of the grant application.

Lawrence had never been to the South and he was hungry for information on what it was like to live there. He spent more than a year doing research in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in Harlem. This is the only art work that I know of that had its beginnings in a library. Lawrence pored over books, periodicals, photographs, and first person accounts about the Great Migration. His friend and fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight, whom he later married, helped Lawrence write the captions for each panel before Lawrence started to paint. The captions consist of one or two sentences that crystallize the meaning of each panel.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog post.

Students create #Panel61

Kelly O’Brien teaches African American History at The Milton Hersey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Her class studied the Great Migration and used the Phillips’s Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website as a resource, including imagining what Panel 61 of the series would look like. Explore their artworks and read about how Ms. O’Brien’s class learned from Lawrence’s artwork.

Last year, when I was building our African American History course here at the Milton Hershey School, in particular the unit on “Migration and Identity,” I was so happy to find Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and to use it as a resource for teaching. When I realized the Philips’s website also challenged viewers to create their own panel, I thought, “What a great educational opportunity for my students!”

In this unit, we began by considering the origins of the Migration by simply looking at the historical background using resources like PBS’s “Many Rivers to Cross” website and documentaries. We also considered the personal experience of the Migration by studying excerpts from The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Finally, the students examined Jacob Lawrence’s panels and created a brief timeline of how Lawrence envisioned the Migration. From there, the students were challenged to make their #Panel 61 with the following assessment. You can see how many of their paragraphs are responses to these questions posed.

What’s really neat is the variety of thought processes that the students depicted in their artwork, and the “buy in” from the students because they voted at the end to choose several for submission to your website. They got really excited about them and wanted to do very well. Before creating, I heard students talking about their ideas and how they see certain legacies of the Migration in their communities, in their schools, etc. It is very meaningful.

#Panel61 submissions from Mrs. O'Brien's African American History class at The Milton Hershey School

#Panel61 submissions from Ms. O’Brien’s African American History class at The Milton Hershey School