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.

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