Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 1

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 1

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 1: Is Life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?, 1955-56. 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

“…is life so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” – Patrick Henry, 1775

This panel shows the tenacious reaction to Patrick Henry’s 1775 call to arms. Given at the Virginia Convention in Richmond, VA, Henry’s words created such a fervor among the audience that George Mason stated, “Every word he says not only engages, but commands the attention and your actions are no longer your own when he addresses them.”

The forcefulness of a community coming together to fight a common injustice is something Lawrence saw as applicable not only in the 18th century, but also during his lifetime. The year of this panel’s production saw many uprisings in the fight for civil rights, including the December beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Tremendous tension was building as many southern states combatted the Supreme Court’s rulings for integration laws on multiple occasions, including the passage of Brown II, which stated that school integration must most forward “with all deliberate speed.” This unease spiraled in many communities and resulted in the murders of two Civil Rights activists, Reverend George W. Lee and Lamar Smith, as well as the murder of teenager Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman in Money, MS. Lawrence was no doubt aware of these tragedies and the massive amount of support they provoked. This panel is not only a call to arms for the Revolutionary War, but also aims to arouse the same fierce response to contemporary events. Using the upraised fists that would later become a symbol of the Black Panther party, Lawrence guides the viewer’s eye through the crowd before settling on the ominous upper right corner of the panel. Devoid of anything except for a few blood splatters, the future of the struggle is left in a state of ambiguity.

Madeline Bartel

Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 3

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 3

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 13: Rally Mohawks! Bring out your axes, and tell King George we’ll pay no taxes on his foreign tea…—A Song of 1773, 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

Rally Mohawks! Bring out your axes, and tell King George we’ll pay no taxes on his foreign tea…  – A song of 1773

The Boston Tea Party is depicted in this panel with an abstracted and geometric composition. The eye follows the dynamic image and quickly absorbs a violent scene, but one lacking in anger or sentimentality. Rather, it is assertive and cogent in communicating the chaos. The colonists are shown under the guise of American Indians, which was not an arbitrary choice; for the colonists, the Indian symbolized liberty and an emerging American identity.

The issue of identity is contextually relevant to the period in which Lawrence was painting this panel. The 20th century was a time when African American identity was being formed and interrogated. Prominent African Americans, especially artists, were charged with constructing and elevating this identity and self. Jacob Lawrence agreed that this “twoness” as an American and a black man or woman existed, but that it was symbolic. Perhaps these challenging juxtapositions are also what defined the colonists and their need to appropriate the identity of the American Indian, two seemingly polar identities.

Alexis Baker

 

This panel depicts six figures in conflict: three masked figures, two unmasked figures, and an additional arm which leads to an “off screen” figure which is likely unmasked (the hand is grasping a masked face).  Each masked figure grasps the face or head of an unmasked figure and vice versa.  The masked figures wear colored garments and Indian headdresses, and the unmasked figures wear black.  Two of the masked figures hold hammers in aggressive poses.  Composition is triangular, every line is diagonal which lends a sense of movement and tension to the image.

As there is no evidence of a physical altercation during the Boston Tea Party, Lawrence may have intended this image to depict the ideological conflict between revolutionary Americans and loyalist Americans.

Heather Chandler

Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 5

Struggle_Panel 5

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 5: We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!– Petition of Many Slaves, 1773, 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 12 x 16 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. Read the introductory post here.

We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! —Petition of Many Slaves, 1773

The struggle here is related to a slave revolt. The gold-colored mountain or wall in the center is representative of the impenetrable American government that refused to listen to the slaves’ petitions for a better, free life. Lawrence composed this panel to emphasize hardship, but still an unwavering courage to continue fighting.

One of the slaves who participated in a petition for emancipation in 1773 was Felix Holbrook. Holbrook was living in Boston and was a neutralist. This caption is a quote in a letter that Holbrook wrote to the provincial legislature of Massachusetts. He wrote the letter on behalf of his fellow slaves with the intention of finally gaining freedom. The letter was one in a series of four petitions. Holbrook narrates a life of hardship in his petition that compliments Lawrence’s ability to capture the fed-up, but forever brave sentiment of Felix’s letter.

Amy Woo