Jacob Lawrence had a genuine talent for narrative art, whether done in series or as individual paintings. Influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, his subjects were invariably linked to the black community: their history and their struggles, as well as their jobs and leisure time activities.

One of three children, Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Both of his parents had migrated north—his mother from Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his father from Charleston, South Carolina. Young Lawrence’s childhood was troubled, and he spent time in foster homes in Philadelphia. At age thirteen he and his mother moved to Harlem, and by the time he was sixteen he had dropped out of school. Acting on his keen interest in art, Lawrence often walked sixty blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1935 he saw African Negro Art, an exhibition celebrating African art at the Museum of Modern Art. His involvement in his school’s history club and regular visits to the public library further satisfied his curiosity. He spent time at Utopia House, a quasi-day care center, which offered arts and crafts sessions under the supervision of Charles Alston, while also working odd jobs.

Despite the Great Depression, Harlem offered a lively cultural environment involving writers, artists, and entertainers. Between 1932 and 1934 Lawrence pursued art at the Harlem Art Workshop working in a corner of Alston’s studio at the 135th Library. He encountered such artists as Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage, meeting many of Savage’s students including Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight, whom he would marry in 1941. When he was about seventeen Lawrence joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked building a dam near Middletown, Connecticut. In 1937 he received a two-year tuition scholarship to attend the American Artists School on West 14th street in Manhattan. With encouragement from Augusta Savage, in 1938 he joined the Work Progress Administration Federal Art Project’s easel painting division. It required that he produce two paintings every six weeks and paid a little less than twenty-four dollars each week. The following year Lawrence had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and in 1939 a solo show at the American Artists School. In 1944 he had his first major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

By then Lawrence had already undertaken his first series focusing on black heroes: the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. This was followed by series about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and white abolitionist John Brown. Each series consisted of well researched small paintings done with poster paints accompanied by descriptive texts. In 1940–1941 he created sixty panels illustrating the Northern Migration, which he knew from his parents’ experience, as well as from many residents of Harlem. The paintings were exhibited at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection each purchased thirty paintings. Beginning in 1943 Lawrence spent twenty-six months in the United States Coast Guard, at first as a steward’s mate in Saint Augustine, Florida, where he faced segregation firsthand. He was later transferred to a ship where the captain was sympathetic and appointed him to the role of ship’s illustrator.

After discharge, in 1945 Lawrence was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the next year Josef Albers invited him to teach during the summer at Black Mountain College in western North Carolina. Lawrence enjoyed sitting in on Albers’s classes and never left campus because of the surrounding area’s segregationist attitudes. By the end of the decade Lawrence was suffering from depression and voluntarily sought treatment in a psychiatric hospital for nine months in 1950-1951. For the rest of his career, he painted genre subjects, many about life in Harlem. 

In 1955 Lawrence began teaching design and figure drawing at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and fifteen years later he was promoted to the position of full professor, coordinator of the arts, and assistant to the dean. He also taught at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, the Art Students League, and the New School for Social Research, both in New York, and periodically at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, often overlapping with David Driskell. Despite these responsibilities Lawrence was very active as an artist; he typically painted with tempera or gouache in his distinctive quasi-cubist style, with compositions dominated by figures and with little concern for perspective or settings. He also began to develop screen prints, many of which replicate images from his earlier series. In 1980 he designed a forty-foot long porcelain mural for Howard University in Washington, DC, and he also illustrated several children’s books, some of which were based on his early series. 

In the early 1960s Lawrence made two trips to Africa, accompanying an exhibition of his work to Lagos and subsequently lecturing in Nigeria. The work that resulted from these trips tends to be densely packed with figures and very colorful. During this decade he occasionally painted subjects reflecting the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. He returned repeatedly to certain themes, such as figures in libraries and builders—construction workers and cabinet makers—which represent the positive contributions of black people to American society.

In 1970 Lawrence moved west to join the faculty at the University of Washington in Seattle. Throughout the latter years of his career he garnered numerous accolades, had work included in many exhibitions, and served on a variety of national committees. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave him their highest honor, he responded saying, “If I have achieved a degree of success as a creative artist, it is mainly due to the Black experience which is our heritage—an experience which gives inspiration, motivation, and stimulation. I was inspired by the Black aesthetic by which we are surrounded, motivated to manipulate form, color, space, line and texture to depict our life, and stimulated by the beauty and poignancy of our environment.”