Jacob Lawrence: Biography and Famous Works

Catalogue of the exhibit at the MOMA of Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, catalogue of the exhibit at the MOMA by Elizabeth Alexander, Edited by Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall, Art by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Amazon.com

Jacob Lawrence was a groundbreaking African American artist who lived from 1917 to 2000. Lawrence is most well-known for his Migration Series, which tells the story in sixty painted panels of The Great Migration, and the War Series, which relates the story of his own service in the United States Coast Guard during World War II. 

The Great Migration was the mass movement and relocation of six million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North from the years 1916-1970, during and after World War I, as the result of  Jim Crow segregation laws and poor economic opportunities in the south for African-Americans.


In addition to the Great Migration which he portrayed in The Migration Series, Jacob Lawrence lifted up the stories of other great African-Americans, giving us stories of hope and perseverance over adversity. Just as his own life was a shining story of perseverance and success, so, too were the stories of the African-Americans he portrayed in his artwork. They served as beacons of hope for him during his youth and development into adulthood and he made sure that they received the recognition they deserved and could continue to inspire others like himself.

Biography of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an African-American artist who was one of the most important artists of the twentieth century and one of America's best-known painters and chronicler of African-American life. He had, and continues to have, a profound influence on American art and culture through his teaching, writing and groundbreaking paintings through which he told the story of African-American life.

He is best known for his many narrative series, particularly The Migration Series

He was born in New Jersey but his family moved to Pennsylvania where he lived until the age of seven. His parents divorced then and he was placed in foster care until the age of thirteen when he moved to Harlem to live with his mother again.

He grew up during the Great Depression but was influenced by the creative atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, a time of great artistic, social, and cultural activity in Harlem. He first studied art in an after-school program at the Utopia Children's House, a community day-care center, and then at the Harlem Art Workshop where he was mentored by artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Some of Lawrence's first paintings were about the lives of heroic African-Americans and others excluded from history books of the time, such as Harriet Tubman, a former slave and leader of the Underground RailroadFrederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist leader, and Toussant L'Ouverture, the slave who led Haiti to liberation from Europe.

Lawrence won a scholarship to the American Artists School in New York in 1937. Upon graduation in 1939 Lawrence received funding from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project and in 1940 received a $1,500 fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation to create a series of panels on The Great Migration, inspired by the experience of his own parents and other people he knew, along with millions of other African-Americans. He completed the series within a year with the aid of his wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight, who helped him gesso the panels and write the text.

In 1941, a period of extreme racial segregation, Lawrence overcame the racial divide to become the first African-American artist whose work was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, and in 1942 he became the first African-American to join a New York gallery. He was twenty-four years old at the time. 

Lawrence was drafted into the Coast Guard during World War II and served as a combat artist. When discharged he returned to Harlem and resumed painting scenes of everyday life. He taught at various places, and in 1971 accepted a permanent teaching position as an art professor at the University of Washington in Seattle where he stayed for fifteen years.

His work has been shown in major museums across the country. The Migration Series is owned jointly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns the even-numbered paintings, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

, which owns the odd-numbered paintings. In 2015 all 60 panels were reunited for a few months in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.

Famous Works

The Migration Series (Initially titled The Migration of the Negro) (1940-1941): a 60-panel series done in tempera,  including image and text, chronicling the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II.

Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-1940: two series of 32 and 31 images, respectively, painted in tempera between 1938 and 1940 of the famed former slaves and abolitionists.

Jacob Lawrence: The Toussaint L’Overture Series (1938):  a 41-panel series, in tempera on paper, chronicling the history of the Haitian revolution and independence from Europe. The images are accompanied by descriptive text. This series is located in the Armistad Research Center's Aaron Douglas Collection in New Orleans.