Emancipation Heroes Get Their Due, in Art an Exhibition of African-American Artist Jacob Lawrence's Early Work Portrays Slavery's Harsh Reality without Malice and Political Rhetoric

By M. S. Mason, | The Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 1992 | Go to article overview

Emancipation Heroes Get Their Due, in Art an Exhibition of African-American Artist Jacob Lawrence's Early Work Portrays Slavery's Harsh Reality without Malice and Political Rhetoric


M. S. Mason,, The Christian Science Monitor


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 symbolism.

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. …

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