When he was living in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s, Jacob Lawrence would walk the 50 to 60 blocks from his home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he would gaze at the series of paintings created by art masters like Leonardo Da Vinci that were dedicated to the life of one figure in history. And Lawrence would gather inspiration for how he could memorialize his own African-American heroes.
“Then he would spend hours at the library researching Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglass, choosing the scenes that he could illuminate like the old masters did,” said Jacqueline Copeland, director of education and visitor services at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.
That led to Lawrence’s own series of paintings, and prints of some of those works are now on display at a new exhibition at the Lewis museum. Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence gathers more than 50 prints, as well as two artist books, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the renowned artist’s birth.
Lawrence was fortunate enough to find success early in his career. When he was 24 years old, the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York each purchased 30 pieces from his Migration series, for which he is probably best known. And Lawrence was particularly prolific. Copeland notes that he created 31 paintings in a series about Frederic Douglass as well as 30 paintings about the life of Harriet Tubman during two years.
“He was a historian all to himself, and he was a storyteller,” said Charles Berea, the Lewis museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “He painted the American scene, and he wanted to educate the masses on African-American history.”
One part of that history is a series of vibrant prints showcased at this exhibition that detail the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Overture. Lawrence expertly depicts both the action of the rebels capture and more intimate moments, like L’Overture’s birth, with boldness and emotion.
Prints from the Tubman series are also on display, including a brilliant, more abstracted scene of figures in motion entitled Play. And Lawrence’s works that explore sermons surrounding the beginning of the Bible’s Book of Genesis and more commercials give the exhibit a rounded
A particularly notable part of this exhibit is that, as the title would suggest, all of the works came from collectors in Maryland. Berea said the museum intends to continue this series “to show what truly great works of art are right here in our state.”
Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence will be on view until Jan. 7, 2018.