Like her husband, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Clarine Knight preferred creating figural compositions rather than the Abstract Expressionist paintings that other artists of her generation embraced. Knight’s vibrant paintings, primarily portraits and images of dancing figures, express her personal response to life experiences and reveal an abiding interest in her West African heritage. Her experimentation with improvisation and movement is best captured in her “quick, lyrical sketches rendered as etchings and monoprints” that she created at the end of her career.
Born in Bridgetown, Barbados, Knight was seven years old when she moved with family friends to St. Louis, Missouri, following the unexpected death of her father. She spent the majority of her youth, however, in Harlem. An avid reader and dance, theatre, and opera enthusiast, Knight immersed herself in the Harlem Renaissance during her teen years. She briefly attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied with painter Lois Mailou Jones and printmaker James Lesesne Wells. Financial hardship brought on by the Great Depression compelled Knight to leave college after her second year and return to Harlem. There, she studied painting and sculpture with Augusta Savage and—thanks to Savage’s recommendation—joined the WPA Mural Project. Savage also introduced the young artist to writers and activists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston, and Alain Locke. As part of her WPA duties, Knight assisted Charles Alston with a mural for the children’s ward at Harlem Hospital. It was in Alston’s studio that Knight met fellow African American artist Jacob Lawrence, whom she married in 1941.
Beyond their marital union, Knight and Lawrence enjoyed a collaborative relationship in which they inspired each other artistically. While both painters’ work incorporated the figural image, Knight’s method was more spontaneous and her subject matter more personal. Whereas Lawrence created narrative paintings highlighting African American history and the black experience, Knight painted oil portraits of friends and poetic studies of dancers, as well as watercolor and gouache landscapes. Her paintings have been viewed by some critics as companion pieces to those created by Lawrence, opinions that gave Knight seemingly little pause. “It wasn’t necessary for me to have acclaim,” Knight said in a 1988 interview. “I just knew that I wanted to do it [paint], so I did it whenever I could.”
Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Knight became an itinerant artist of sorts, accompanying her husband as he pursued new opportunities. Shortly after their 1941 wedding, the couple moved to New Orleans for a brief period while Lawrence completed work for a grant. Knight's "time in the South had a strong impact; she loved its sultriness, which reminded her of Barbados." The summer of 1946 was spent at Josef Albers’ experimental Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, the 1950s in New York studying dance with members of Martha Graham’s company, and, in 1964, she and Lawrence traveled to Nigeria. This last sojourn undoubtedly appealed to Knight’s curiosity regarding her African roots. Finally, in 1971, Lawrence was offered a teaching position at the University of Washington School of Art and the couple settled in Seattle. Five years later, the Seattle Art Museum hosted Knight’s first solo show. Various other exhibitions in New York, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., followed in the 1970s. At the same time, institutions such as Hampton University, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art began collecting her work.
In 2000, Lawrence and Knight established a charitable foundation which supports struggling artists as well as children’s programs. Knight stopped creating art after her husband’s death and, instead, diverted her energy toward advancing the foundation’s philanthropic efforts.