Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 13

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Struggle_Panel 13

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 13: Victory and Defeat, 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This panel depicts the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, a battle which is remembered as the last major engagement of the American Revolution, effectively ending the conflict with a resounding American victory.

Unlike the more eventful scenes in the Struggle series, which depict violent interactions between people, this panel is one in which Lawrence omits figures. It is in these select panels that chaotic masses of bodies, violent interactions, and scenes of death are exchanged by a peaceful encounter between the hands of Victory and Defeat. Defeat, dressed in the British red coat, is situated above the outstretched hand of Victory which extends from a long black cloak. Victory beckons out to Defeat to relinquish its sword amidst a primarily blackened and flat background of piled cannon balls, an exchange that is ultimately respectable and diplomatic.

Although moments of violence often stand out in history, here Lawrence emphasizes the impact of the simple exchange between opposing hands through his simplistic style. While traditional depictions of Yorktown show the American general towering over the British general, here the hands are on an almost equal plane, suggesting that the violence has ended. Yet the subtle gap between Victory and Defeat also suggests a moment of tension as Defeat realizes his vision has come to an end.

Maureen O’Connor

Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 8

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Struggle_Panel 8

Struggle_Panel 8 Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 8: …again the rebels rushed furiously on our men.—a Hessian Soldier (Battle of Bennington, August 16, 1777), 1954. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

…again the rebels rushed furiously on our men. –a Hessian soldier

This image depicts a violent and chaotic moment during the Battle of Bennington, a Revolutionary War battle that occurred in August 1777.

Jacob Lawrence’s depiction of the battle takes place in a moment of collision between Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum’s troop and American soldiers at Bennington. The composition’s chaotic vision is realized through the sharp angular lines and a dark palette with bursts of red, white, and blue. Powerful lines created by the crossing bayonets create a sense of movement, yet the panel is also divided by the “rebels,” or American troops, on the left and British on the right, as indicated by their red coats. Despite Lawrence’s visual divisions, it is unclear from this panel who is winning at this particular moment; instead, all we see is the violence and blood that accompany war. The frenzied movement at the center of the panel is juxtaposed by the limp hand and bloody bayonet that extend from the bottom right corner. The hand thus provides a haunting stillness to an otherwise visually captivating panel.

The titular quote for this panel is extrapolated from an unidentified Hessian contracted soldier, one of the mercenaries who often felt no national loyalty to the cause they were fighting for. Although they certainly do not share the same long and brutal history, Lawrence might have seen a parallel between Hessian soldiers and African slaves: both were physically uprooted from their homes and found themselves participating and subsequently living (often involuntarily) in America. By giving a voice to a nameless Hessian solider, Lawrence is giving exposure to a voice that took part in creating the nation, but whose history is often ignored. The depiction of the Battle of Bennington, then, is not simply a war scene between the Americans and British, but a powerful reminder of the diverse groups of people who participated in the American Revolution.

Maureen O’Connor

Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 12

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 12: And a Woman Mans a Cannon (Molly Corbin, Defense of Ft. Washington, North Manhattan Island, November 16, 1776), 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

Panel 12 of the Struggle series tells the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the first woman to receive a military pension. Corbin originally served as a cook and laundress for the militia, but soon joined the battle as a matross, or cannon operator. When her husband’s matross partner was killed in action, Corbin took up the task herself. As the fight wore on, Corbin’s husband was also killed and she was left to operate the cannons alone. Although she was inexperienced in combat, Corbin was described as having excellent aim, a fact that the British did not overlook. With multiple British troops firing at her, Corbin held her ground and was the last cannon to stop firing in battle.

Though the entire piece details the narrative of Margaret Cochran Corbin, she is rather obscured in the panel. Filling almost the entire left side of the painting, Corbin’s dress is the same tan brown with abstracted shadows as the background and appears to blend in almost seamlessly. She is shown with her back to the viewer, focusing on the cannon fire. Additionally, the two accompanying figures appear much more dynamic. Lawrence is not allowing the viewer to see the most important part of the narrative. Instead, he provides insight through the text. In a removed, objective tone Lawrence reveals what is hidden in the panel’s abstraction, creating a relationship between the text and image that gives both new meaning.

Madeline Bartel