FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. Today, in honor of Jacob Lawrence's birthday, we feature his compelling masterwork Migration, currently on display at the de Young.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and spent the majority of his early childhood in Philadelphia. When he was twelve years old, Lawrence’s mother moved the family to Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City.
In Harlem, the young artist’s abilities flourished. Lawrence’s evocative street scenes made with crayons impressed his art teachers at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop, where he took classes. During the 1930s, renowned Harlem Renaissance artist Charles Alston mentored Lawrence, providing studio space and introducing him to Harlem’s artistic community.
By the time he was only 23, Lawrence had already established himself as an important and critically acclaimed artist, his early achievements all the more impressive in light of the obstacles that confronted African American artists of his era. In 1940, he was awarded a prestigious fellowship that allowed him to move into his own studio and paint full time, and at the age of 24 he became the first African American artist to be represented in a major New York gallery.
It was during this period that he completed his seminal series The Migration of the Negro, which portrays the northward exodus of nearly two million African Americans in search of a better life that took place between the two World Wars. Fleeing an oppressive sharecropper system, racial violence, and “Jim Crow” segregation in the South, African Americans left in search of higher-paying jobs in the urban centers of the Midwest, Northeast, and West in what later became known as The Great Migration.
This painting, the first by Lawrence to enter the Museums’ permanent collection, reprises the artist’s most famous theme and was one of ten works commissioned by photographer Walker Evans for a 1948 article entitled “In the Heart of the Black Belt.” The protagonists, surrounded by their worldly possessions, wait in a Southern railway station for a train to take them North. The anonymity of these largely faceless figures emphasizes the shared experience in seeking a better life. This universal aspiration remains relevant today, when issues of immigration and equality continue to dominate America’s social and political landscape.
Come wish Jacob Lawrence a happy birthday in Gallery 11 at the de Young, where Migration is currently on view!