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Black History Month #11 - Jacob Lawrence and the WPA

The Migration of the Negro, Panel 1 by Jacob Lawrence, 1941

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) is often described as the most widely acclaimed Black artist of the 20th century. Did you know that he received early training from WPA art workshops in Harlem where he lived as a young man? Leslie King-Hammond, artist and Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at Maryland Institute College of Art, (and who the Museum welcomed in 2008 for a lecture about Black Printmakers and the WPA) has written about the significance of the WPA. She asserts that community art centers provided a space where, "art education and community service combined to give significant numbers of Black artists the rare opportunity to be supported in their chosen line of work, to gain new avenues for expression, and to have contact with white artists, which under other circumstances would not have occurred."

In 1938-1939 Lawrence himself worked for the WPA Federal Art Project and produced some of his earliest significant works. In 1940, he received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to create The Migration of the Negro (now known as The Migration Series). The series is comprised of 60 panels which depict African American life. Created when he was only 23, the series brought him national acclaim. He would go on to have a long, successful career as an artist and a teacher.

According to the National Gallery of Art's biography, "The paintings of Jacob Lawrence express his lifelong concern for human dignity, freedom, and his own social consciousness. His images portray the everyday reality, the struggles and successes of African American life. Using art as an instrument of protest, Lawrence aligned himself with the American school of social realism and Mexican muralist tradition."

Learn more about the Migration Series and see the panels created by Jacob Lawrence here.

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