“I paint the American scene,” said the artist Jacob Lawrence. That dramatic story encompassed the American Revolution, the building of the Erie Canal, the Civil War, Sacagawea, Paul Revere, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. It also included the Great Migration north from the Jim Crow South, the lives of everyday New Yorkers, and Lawrence’s stint, during W.W. II, in the first fully racially integrated U.S. Coast Guard crew.
Long considered America’s pre-eminent Black artist, Lawrence, who lived from 1917 to 2000, painted history. And while he was neither color-blind nor apolitical, his art envisioned an America that acknowledged the shared histories of races. His paintings weave the strands of the country’s unsung heroes and marginalized events into a more inclusive, complex, and therefore truer national fabric. A visionary storyteller inspired by European modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence was among the first artists to give voice and a visual narrative to the Black experience—human struggles he understood to be universal.