WITH the Quincentennial upon us, many Americans have been
inspired to look more deeply at their past, to discover new heroes,
to question more carefully what they find heroic. Nothing could be
more timely than the exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's historical
series "Frederick Douglass" and "Harriet Tubman" from the Hampton
University Museum's collection. (The show, which originated at the
Chicago Art Institute, is currently on view in Houston.)
The African-American artist began to chronicle the lives of
these heroes of the Emancipation at the beginning of his career in
1938. In the two years it took him to complete the twin series, Mr.
Lawrence honed his considerable talent and created 63 remarkable
paintings that stand today, critics say, among his best work.
The work as a whole is a revelation of American history,
African-American experience, and of Lawrence's art. Each piece
is accompanied by a text Lawrence wrote from his research on
Douglass and Tubman. These texts, though simple and teacherly in
tone, are often movingly eloquent.
One of the great achievements of the show is its excellent
catalog - written in keen, straight-forward prose by Ellen Harkins
Wheat. She points out that Lawrence divides Douglass's life into
three periods - slave, fugitive, and free man. He chose his subject
and wrote his text (primarily from Douglass's autobiography) for
each picture and completed all the drawings in the series. Then he
mixed his colors (in casein tempera on gessoed hardboard), filling
in the area in each picture where that color belonged. He worked on
all the panels at the same time, thus achieving a perfect color
coherence throughout the series.
Lawrence was more literal in the Douglass pictures than he was
in the Tubman series. The Douglass pieces allowed him to develop
his technique in a new medium. He experimented with a stylization
of form that did not stereotype his subjects. This stylization
allowed him to experiment with composition, continuity, and
But it is in the Tubman series that Lawrence's style matures
fully. His compositions become stronger and cleaner, his symbolism
is clearer, and his painting technique is surer. In both cases he
draws on Christian iconography to express the quality of his
heroes' struggles on behalf of their people.
In the Tubman pictures, those symbols come to the service of
deeper meaning. Though he deals with the harsh realities of
slavery, including the villainous and brutal behavior of some slave
holders, the tone of the series is free of malice and political
rhetoric. Lawrence's heroes are driven to their lives of service by
faith and love rather than by hate.
Lawrence attended Frederick Douglass High School in Harlem.
During that time, a vigorous community movement had developed (in
the 1930s) that centered on the New York Public Library branch at
135th Street. The library had a collection of black literature and
history and sponsored workshops in the arts and crafts for children
and adults. …