Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Migration Series’ Opens at SAM this Saturday

SAM hosts a pivotal early series by local hero Jacob Lawrence

By Florangela Davila


January 16, 2017

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

In 1941, soon-to-be globally acclaimed artist Jacob Lawrence was just 23 and unknown, painting in a rundown Harlem studio without heat or running water, when he created his landmark The Migration Series, a total of 60 tempera panels that chronicle the journey of 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North that began in 1915.

A show of that work opens at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) on January 21, and signals the first time in more than two decades that a West Coast audience will be able to view the series in its entirety.  

Seattle proudly claims Lawrence as one of its own. Although he grew up in Philadelphia and New York City, Lawrence—with his wife, the late artist Gwendolyn Knight—spent the last years of his life in Seattle after accepting a position in 1971 to teach art at the University of Washington. He never stopped painting, right up until his death at age 82 in 2000.

Every one of those late works was “excellent,” wrote The New Yorker, but nothing could outshine the work that made him famous overnight in 1941. And even though local audiences might feel as though they are familiar with Lawrence’s decidedly abstract work, this exhibition promises to reveal something new about Seattle’s adopted son.

“People will be surprised by this deeply moving series,” says Patricia Junker, curator of American art at SAM. First, there’s a darker, more subdued palette than we might be used to: forest greens, deeper yellows and browns versus brighter reds and blues. Second, this is a sweeping narrative, very much like what you might find on a mural, except the story has been executed on small 18-by-12-inch panels. These works offer an opportunity to evaluate the genius of the artist—paradoxically intimate and quiet despite his thunderously important subject. “We have this sense that something has to be punchy and so graphic to get your attention,” says Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas, who cowrote a book about Knight and counted Lawrence as a mentor and friend. “But sometimes a whisper is just as notable.”

Lawrence had already embraced the story of African-Americans when he began work on The Migration Series. He had painted multipart narratives about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. But now Lawrence was gravitating toward a more personal history: He was the child of migrants and he saw his own Harlem neighborhood transformed by the arrivals of tens of thousands of African-Americans from the South.

“He believed in these anonymous migrants,” Junker says.

Lawrence spent months at the library researching the migration, and heard countless stories from friends and neighbors. In threescore searing panels, he chronicled every aspect of a journey that would define a people. He depicted the oppression they were fleeing; a race riot; a battered woman; segregated dining rooms; a bombing; their dreams of opportunity (a crowded train station showing Chicago, New York and St. Louis as destinations); their lives of poverty (a simple table with meager offerings of food); the life of labor in fields and steel mills; and what people got to do in their free time—consume the black press, attend church and, in the North, actually vote.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight: Their own migration led to Seattle in 1971

“It’s a single work of art,” Junker says, explaining how Lawrence, whose influences include Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, approached the series very much the way a filmmaker approaches a story: frame by frame. He painted all 60 panels at one time, using the same colors across the board. “That’s why the palette is the same all the way through,” Junker points out. A burnt yellow, for example, is a simple blanket in one panel, the sun in another, an ammunition belt around an officer’s waist in a third.

Lawrence wrote short, straightforward, almost lyrical captions for each panel, which animate and propel the series forward, making the entire work feel, as Junker says, “very much alive.” Fortune magazine was so taken by its power that it published 26 panels in its November 1941 issue—the first time a mainstream magazine published the work of an African-American artist.

That same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., both sought to acquire the entire series; the institutions ended up dividing it, taking 30 panels each. Seventy-five years after its creation, the series was reunited for shows in both New York and in D.C.

Now, in the centennial year of Lawrence’s birth, it’s finally arriving in Seattle.

The subject matter, to be sure, will grab your attention, says Thomas: It was the largest internal movement of people in history not motivated by immediate threat of death, but by hope instead. Yet Thomas urges us, “Don’t forget to look at the artistry.” 

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series
January 21 – April 23
Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; 206.654.3100; seattleartmuseum.org

Illustration by Arthur Mount

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