Renowned painter Jacob Lawrence’s depictions of African American history and everyday life in Harlem, with their cubist style and highly contrasting palettes, have garnered appreciation from critics, collectors, and the public for decades. Lawrence never completed high school but educated himself in the libraries of Harlem, where moved in 1930 at age thirteen. At twenty-three, he gained wide claim for his “Migration Series,” sixty tempera on panel paintings which chronicle the Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern part of the country to urban cities in the North; the group of works was shown in its entirety at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015.
Unlike other painters from the Harlem Renaissance, like Norman Lewis and Faith Ringgold (both of whom are also a part of the Artists of Harlem Fund), Lawrence enjoyed critical favor and institutional success during his lifetime, receiving solo exhibitions at institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1945. Perhaps the best-known African American artist of the twentieth century other than Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist has influenced generations of painters. In 2007, the White House acquired his 1947 painting The Builders for $2.5 million at auction; it has hung in the Green Room since 2009.
Lawrence and his rising market
Lawrence’s current auction record was set in 2018, when Sotheby’s sold his painting The Businessmen for $6.1 million, exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $1.5–$2 million by 3.5x and more than doubling his previous record. Athena’s analysis of market trends reveals that between 2017 and last year, the cost of Lawrence’s drawings has also grown at a compound 32.3% annually, a staggering figure which reflects collectors’ ever increasing interest in his work. As the public’s interest in artworks by brilliant Black artists continues to trend upwards, Lawrence’s legacy and market success is poised to rise further.
A real “rediscovery” of a lost painting
Last year, the art world was stunned when it was revealed that one of Lawrence’s missing paintings, a canvas from his 1954–56 series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” had been hanging in a couple’s Upper West Side apartment. The discovery was occasioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” which aimed to reunite works from the series and present them together for the first time in decades. Soon after, a nurse living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, came forward with yet another of the lost works.
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Lawrence received art training at an early age from Charles Alston and Augusta Savage, two pivotal artist-educator figures during the Harlem Renaissance. When he was only twenty-one, the artist completed his first series, a group of paintings of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution. He followed this early accomplishment with a series dedicated to the lives of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and the mammoth “Migration Series,” which was shown by the Museum of Modern Art in 1944 alongside eight paintings Lawrence made while serving in the Coast Guard during World War II.
With his wife and fellow painter, Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence joined Alston and Savage in the 306 Group, a collective that also included Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden. In the summer of 1946, at the behest of artist Josef Albers, Lawrence moved to North Carolina to teach at the legendary Black Mountain College of Art. Upon returning to New York, Lawrence experienced a deep depression and checked himself into a mental hospital in Queens, where he remained for eleven months, painting all the while.
In 1960, the Brooklyn Museum hosted Lawrence’s first career survey. Between 1971 and 1986, Lawrence taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he would live until his death in 2000. In the later years of his life, the artist focused on large-scale commissions. Among his most celebrated are Exploration, a forty foot-long mural he created for Howard University in 1980, and New York in Transit, a mosaic installed in New York’s Grand Central Station. A master of Modernism, Lawrence will be remembered for his monumental contributions to America’s understanding of African American history.
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