Artists of Black History Month: Jacob Lawrence

Liz Catalano
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Black River Auction Offers Two Signed Screenprints from American Painter

One of the first nationally-recognized Black American painters, Jacob Lawrence completed his first significant painting series at 21 years old. Social realism was always the bedrock of Lawrence’s work. Throughout the 20th century, he returned to the vivid imagery of New York’s Harlem neighborhood to tell sweeping stories about Black history. “The community [in Harlem] let me develop,” he later reflected. “I painted the only way I knew how to paint… I tried to put the images down the way I related to the community.”

Several prints from Lawrence’s later career will come to auction this Black History Month with Black River Auction. Bidding will begin at 10:30 AM EST on February 21st, 2021. Learn more about Jacob Lawrence and his influence on American art before the sale starts.

Jacob Lawrence in 1991. Image from Robert Sorbo©️AP/Shutterstock.
Jacob Lawrence in 1991. Image from Robert Sorbo©️AP/Shutterstock.

Jacob Lawrence was born to American Southern migrants who settled in Harlem. He grew up with the Harlem Renaissance, finding inspiration in a growing awareness of Black artistic excellence. Lawrence pursued art from a young age. He met Langston Hughes, Charles H. Alston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Augusta Savage while studying at the Harlem Art Workshop. In the late 1930s, he produced a series of tempera paintings that told the story of Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were the subjects of Lawrence’s next painting series. 

Lawrence caught the art world’s attention with a series exploring the Great Migration. Following World War I, several million Black Americans moved from the Southern United States to other parts of the country. Lawrence witnessed the social and cultural changes this movement created. In response, he made 60 tempera paintings. The Downtown Gallery exhibited them in 1941, making Lawrence the first Black artist to be represented by a major New York gallery. Most of the paintings were later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection. 

Over the next few decades, Lawrence became one of the most respected Black painters in America. His works explored the everyday lives of working-class people in clear and vivid ways. Many of Lawrence’s paintings carry a similar color palette with consistent styling and narratives. This is partially due to the artist’s chosen medium. Tempera paint dries very quickly, which made careful planning a necessity. When painting a series, Lawrence often worked on multiple pieces at the same time to keep the colors consistent. Lawrence returned to several themes throughout his career, including segregation, violence, and the civil rights movement. 

Jacob Lawrence, Moses, 1989. Image from Black River Auction.
Jacob Lawrence, Moses, 1989. Image from Black River Auction.

The upcoming auction features a 1989 print from Jacob Lawrence. He created eight illustrations for a limited-edition run of The First Book of Moses, Called Genesis. The available print is the seventh panel of the series. It shows Moses in a burgundy robe telling a crowd about the creation of humanity. 

This panel features several unusual details, including a small toolbox next to the church pews and a miniature Adam and Eve summoned by the preacher’s hands. Lawrence reportedly based this Moses illustration series on the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. This print has an estimate of USD 2,000 to $4,000. Another available Lawrence print was created in 1996. It shows a blue-clothed woman selecting flowers at a supermarket ($1,000 – $2,000).

Lawrence enjoyed professional and financial success during his lifetime as institutions sought his distinctive paintings. Interest in Lawrence’s work has not slowed down in the years since his death, either. One egg tempera painting, titled The Businessmen, sold for $6,169,800 in November of 2018 at Sotheby’s. It had a presale estimate of $2,000,000. If they reach the art market, Lawrence’s original works regularly sell for $500,000 or above. Screenprints and artist’s proofs are available more often. One screenprint from the Frederick Douglass series achieved $11,000 with Black Art Auction in 2020 after 16 competitive bids.

Jacob Lawrence, The Businessmen, 1947. Image from Sotheby’s.
Jacob Lawrence, The Businessmen, 1947. Image from Sotheby’s.

Lawrence did not feel confined to the artistic movements that dominated the 20th century. His inspiration was Harlem, and his artworks defied categories. Today, Lawrence is remembered as a leading painter of Black history and a master artist. In Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Patricia Hills quotes Lawrence shortly before his death in 2000: “… for me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity and strength. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good. Universality so that it may be understood by all men.” Thanks to those qualities, Lawrence’s work continues to inspire artists worldwide.  

Prints from Jacob Lawrence will be available in the second session of Black River Auction’s upcoming fine art sale. The live event will start on February 21st, 2021 at 10:30 AM EST. For more information and to place a bid, visit LiveAuctioneers.

Interested in reading more about Black artists this February? Auction Daily recently explored the work of contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas