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The 20th century African-American artist you should know

Jacob Lawrence

Born in 1917 in Atlantic City and later moved to Harlem, Jacob Lawrence was an African-American painter known for his portrayal of African-American life, as well as a storyteller, interpreter and educator. He brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors.

He dropped out of high school at age 16 and worked at a laundromat and printing shop. He did however, continue to take classes at the Harlem Community Art Center and secured a scholarship to an arts school and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration, established during the Great Depression by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was married and later drafted into the coastguard where he painted 40 pieces of what he saw during the war. All 40 paintings were lost. When he returned home he became depressed and spent 11 months in a in institution in Queens, eventually overcoming this and spending 15 years as a professor at the University of Washington.

Lawrence is among the best-known 20th-century African-American painters. Lawrence was 23 when he completed the 60-panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro, now called the Migration Series, a portrayal of when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the rural South to the North after World War I and adjusted to Northern cities.

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Fortune Magazine included a part of the series in 1941.

The collection is now housed in two museums while Lawrence’s works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

At 82, his last commissioned public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.

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