Exhibition Curator Elsa Smithgall shares the history behind Jacob Lawrence’s epic Migration Series in this video. In discussing the work’s impact on the world today, Smithgall commends the artist’s foresight: “Completing his series on the eve of World War II, Lawrence leaves us in Panel 60 with the message: ‘and the migrants kept coming.’ Lawrence was prescient in recognizing that the migration story would continue, inviting us to reflect on the migration experience in our contemporary world.”
We’re thrilled to have a brand new DC museum neighbor starting this weekend! The National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opens its doors on Saturday, Sept. 24, and in celebration we’re highlighting the work of Jacob Lawrence, a key artist from the new Smithsonian’s permanent collection (and the star of a special exhibition at the Phillips this fall):
1) Jacob Lawrence painted all 60 panels of his seminal work The Migration Series simultaneously. To keep the colors consistent, Lawrence applied one hue at a time to every painting where it was to appear.
2) Lawrence became the first African American artist to be represented by a New York gallery when The Migration Series was shown at Manhattan’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. It was after seeing the works here that museum founder Duncan Phillips fell in love with Lawrence’s work, and gave the artist his first solo exhibition show in 1942.
3) Jacob Lawrence was 24 years old when he painted The Migration Series. He did so with the help of his wife Gwendolyn Knight, who assisted in prepping the boards and writing captions.
After years of study with him at the Art Students League, in 1891, Lydia Field Emmet accepted William Merritt Chase’s offer to lead the preparatory class at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art. By this time, she was also pursuing work as a society portraitist and a designer of stained glass for Tiffany and Company. Her self-assured expression fixed on Chase’s canvas captures an image of an artist who would become one of the foremost American women portrait painters of the late 19th century.
The portrait bears the strong imprint of the 17th century Dutch portraiture tradition, sharing with Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals an allegiance to painterly brushwork, elegant contrasts of light and dark, dramatic pose, and expressive tone. Moreover, Lydia Field Emmet highlights Chase’s skillful hand in conveying texture, as seen in the precise rendering of the lace and the variegated tones of the pink satin ribbon—signs of the enduring legacy of the artist’s Munich training.
Elsa Smithgall, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master exhibition curator