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


Women’s History Month: “Marjorie Sketches”

Phillips_Little Bouquet

Marjorie Phillips, Little Bouquet, 1934. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired c. 1941

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s the perfect time to reflect on some of the powerful in the art world throughout history. Often overlooked is one such woman, Marjorie Phillips, who served many roles throughout her marriage to Duncan Phillips: wife, mother, hostess, adviser, museum director, and even artist. Despite the lack of support women received for practicing art at the time that Marjorie began painting, she maintained the hobby until the end of her life. Describing how those around her reacted to her pastime, she remembers Duncan’s mother saying “‘Marjorie sketches.’ That sounded better to her than ‘Marjorie is a painter.’”

But Marjorie was a painter, and a prolific one at that. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, her paintings were exhibited in museums all over the country. Perhaps one of the most widely exhibited is Little Bouquet (1934), featuring a couple of Marjorie’s favorite things: flowers and paint. As her son Laughlin described her artistic style in 1985, “her painting always reflected a conscious decision,” an ironic statement given the apparent spontaneity in Marjorie’s subject matter. Like Little Bouquet, all of her paintings offer a glimpse into her personal life. This piece serves as an inside look at the artist’s working surface as if left mid-session. Yet each individual application of color is extremely deliberate upon close inspection. In a review of her works exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1955, a reporter wrote “without trying for the iridescent chromatic effects of the French painters, she gives an equal impression of color through the simplest of means.” Simple indeed, yet extremely poignant.

Marjorie’s works are exhibited throughout the collection among leading impressionists like Cézanne, Bonnard, and Monet. Her impressionist style shines among them, making her truly a leading lady among her contemporaries.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern