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Jacob Lawrence

National Portrait Gallery

Jacob Lawrence

National Portrait Gallery
Born Atlantic City, New Jersey

During his lifetime, Jacob Lawrence achieved a level of recognition previously unequaled by an African American artist. In 1941 he exhibited a series of sixty paintings, originally entitled The Migration of the Negro, at Edith Halpert’s prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York City. With the assistance of his future wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence developed a narrative that told the complex history of how and why millions of African Americans moved from the South to the North between the two world wars. Paired with explanatory captions, the paintings attracted wide notice and solidified Lawrence’s reputation for creating multi-picture stories about episodes and individuals in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. In this portrait Lawrence poses in his studio with The Visitors, now in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Nacido en Atlantic City, New Jersey

Jacob Lawrence alcanzó en vida un nivel de popularidad nunca antes visto para un artista afroamericano. En 1941 expuso una serie de sesenta pinturas, titulada inicialmente The Migration of the Negro, en la prestigiosa Downtown Gallery de Edith Halpert en la ciudad de New York. Con ayuda de su futura esposa, la artista Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence desarrolló una narrativa pictórica para representar un complicado tema: cómo y porqué millones de afroamericanos pasaron del sur al norte del país entre las dos guerras mundiales. Acompañadas de notas explicativas, las pinturas atrajeron amplia atención y consolidaron la reputación de Lawrence, también creador de narraciones pictóricas sobre figuras de la historia afroamericana como Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman y John Brown. Lawrence posó para este retrato en su estudio junto a la pintura The Visitors, ahora en la colección del Dallas Museum of Art. En el Smithsonian American Art Museum pueden apreciarse varias obras de Lawrence.

Jacob Lawrence Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
Jacob Lawrence 1917-2000

Jacob Lawrence, best known for his dynamic depictions of African American life and history, rarely engaged in portraiture. But when he made a self-portrait like this one, he treated his own face like his other subjects-as a basis for inventing expressive abstract shapes. In this drawing, Lawrence concentrated his appearance into a few essential lines and shapes. A black arc describes the shape of his skull, only thinly covered by hair. His shaggy mustache is a complex of wavy lines flanked by heavier curves evoking folds of aging flesh. Lawrence left most of his face white to set off the abstracted black shapes of his nose, eyes, mouth, and mustache. Lawrence poetically combined observation with geometry to reflect both his appearance and his approach to art.

Jacob Lawrence Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
In about 1965, when Jacob Lawrence began this self-portrait, he had assumed a visibility beyond anything previously accorded to an African American artist. The 1941 exhibition of his epic series of sixty paintings, originally entitled "The Migration of the Negro," had firmly established his reputation. Composition, color, and abstract pattern became the root of Lawrence’s style as he painted the black experience. The human face and figure, normally subject to entrenched artistic conventions, were to him just shapes to be simplified or distorted. With the exception of a small group of self-portraits that he made in the 1960s, Lawrence rarely attempted portraiture. In 1996, he updated this drawing of himself, adding bands of black around the face and changing its contours to a single sweeping curve. Transforming a linear drawing into a muscular interplay of black and white, the likeness reflects both the strength and the anxieties of the artist’s advancing age.

Cuando comenzó este autorretrato, hacia 1965, Jacob Lawrence disfrutaba de una visibilidad nunca antes concedida a un artista afroamericano. En 1941, la exposición de su épica serie de sesenta pinturas titulada "La migración del negro" había cimentado su reputación. La composición, el color y los patrones abstractos constituyeron la base del estilo con que abordó la experiencia del pueblo negro. La cara y la figura humanas, normalmente sujetas a arraigadas convenciones artísticas, eran para él meras formas que simplificaba o distorsionaba. Con excepción de un pequeño grupo de autorretratos que hizo en la década de 1960, Lawrence rara vez abordó el género del retrato. En 1996 actualizó este dibujo de sí mismo con bandas negras alrededor de la cara, convirtiendo los contornos en una amplia curva continua. El dibujo lineal original quedó así transformado en un vigoroso juego de negro y blanco que refleja la fuerza y a la vez las ansiedades del artista ya avanzado en años.

Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence, 1968 October 26

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 92 pages.

Interview of Jacob Lawrence conducted 1968 October 26, by Carroll Greene, for the Archives of American Art.

Dixie Café

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A depiction of a segregated café rendered in black and white, with black diners seated in the "Colored" section on the left, and white diners seated in the "White" section on the right. The drawing is signed and dated by the artist on the front.

Builders: Stained Glass Window

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This silkscreen print depicts three individual figures with building implements in their hands. The figures and their clothing are formed by blocks of bright color. The middle figure, shown from the shoulders up, holds a hammer in his left hand and is passing a compass to a second individual with his right hand. The second figure, shown from the back, carries a saw in his right hand. The third figure, standing at the left margin, holds a hand drill. Behind the figures is a black arch in a red wall. Within the black arch is a red field with patches of green, yellow, black and brown. Surrounding the figures are geometric shapes in black, grey, and red. The print has a wide white margin. Under the bottom left corner of the image is the artist’s stamp and the numbers "44/135" handwritten in pencil. Below the bottom right corner is the artist's signature "Jacob Lawrence - 2000” handwritten in pencil.

Cabinet Makers

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

History Grabs the Headlines, But the Quiet Authority of the Art Gallery in the New Smithsonian Museum Speaks Volumes

Smithsonian Magazine

Entering the shiny new lobby of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, one might think it a brilliant showcase for contemporary art. 

Across the ceiling sprawls an abstract bronze, copper and brass sculpture by Chicago’s Richard Hunt. On one wall is a five-paneled work from D.C. color field artist Sam Gilliam. On another, a relief of recycled tires from Chakaia Booker, who wowed Washington last year with an installation at the splashy reopening of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

All of this inside a striking, critically-lauded building, designed by David Adjaye and his team, with its three-tiered corona shape, covered by panels inspired by ironwork railings made by enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina.

Artistic as that might be, the bulk of the $540 million, 400,000-square-foot museum is given to the history of African-Americans, presented in four underground galleries. Two of the five aboveground floors are given to cultural and community milestones in sports, music and military, among others. 

But once one walks into the Visual Arts Gallery, the tone shifts.

No longer dense with information, archival pictures and text, the gallery's uncluttered walls make way for splashy art that has space to breathe and have an impact. Not as flashy as the nearby, packed Musical Crossroads exhibition, it has a quiet authority, needing not to make a case for African-Americans in art, but merely putting it on display.

The gallery's uncluttered walls make way for splashy art that has space to breathe and have an impact. (Jason Flakes)

The first object to catch the eye upon entrance is Jefferson Pinder’s striking 2009 Mothership (capsule), which calls out to both the Parliament/Funkadelic Mothership replica in the nearby gallery—and the original Mercury capsules at the other end of the National Mall, in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. 

More than that, the replica of the Mercury capsule connects with the weight of history elsewhere in the museum as it is built with salvaged wood from the platform of President Obama’s first inaugural. (All that and it has a soundtrack: Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place”).

Several prominent African-American artists are represented in the exhibition, from Rodin-protégé Meta Vaux Warrick’s painted plaster 1921 sculpture Ethiopia to Charles Alston's 1970 bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King, jr

Two paintings by Jacob Lawrence span two decades. There’s a vivid abstract from Romare Bearden, and an example from the influential David Driskell. His striking Behold Thy Son portrays Emmitt Till’s mother presenting the body of her lynched son. Till’s actual casket is one of the more powerful artifacts in the history museum five floors below. 

The artist Lorna Simpson is represented by an untitled 1989 silver print also known as A lie is not a shelter, one of several aphorisms printed on a T-shirt around some folded black arms (among the others, “discrimination is not protection” and “isolation is not a remedy”) 

Activist art is a big part of the work in the gallery, with work drawn from a half century ago to current times reflecting the kind of uprisings chronicled in other corners of the museum.

Amy Sherald's 2012 Grand Dame Queenie is on view in the new Visual Arts exhibition at the National Museum of African American History. (Jason Flakes)

Betye Saar’s mixed-media tryptich Let Me Entertain You from 1972 shows the transition of a 19th-century banjo-playing minstrel performer, seen in a second image is imposed over a photograph of a lynching, to the same figure in 20th century brandishing a rifle instead.

Barbara Jones-Hogu’s bold 1971 Unite shows a series of figures, fists aloft—like the life-sized statue of John Carlos and Tommie Smith lifting gloved fists when taking medals at the 1968 Olympics, in the sports gallery.

Even the most abstract works, such as a 1969 painting by Gilliam, whose commissioned artwork is also in the lobby, often make reference to key dates in African-American history. His April 4 denotes the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Simple funding may have prevented the gallery from having perhaps the best known of African-American artists—Jean-Michel BasquiatKehinde WileyMartin PuryearGlenn Ligon or Carrie Mae Weems, which sell in today’s market for breathtaking amounts of money. 

Still, there are lessons to be learned, particularly in some of the oldest pieces from artists who worked obscurely in their day, dating back to Joshua Johnson, a portrait painter in Baltimore thought to be the first person of color making his living as a painter in the U.S. He is represented by his 1807-08 work, Portrait of John Westwood, a stagecoach manufacturer whose children he also painted (The Westwood Children currently hangs nearby at the National Gallery of Art).

There was also Robert S. Duncanson, an African-American painter associated with the Hudson River School, whose 1856 Robbing the Eagles Nest is on display. 

The Harlem Renaissance artist Laura Wheeler Waring, who was included in the country’s first exhibition of African-American art in 1927, is represented by a perfectly engaging 1935 portrait Girl in a Red Dress

Several artists are represented by self-portraits, including Howard University educator James A. Porter, in studio work from 1935; Frederick Flemister’s Rennaisance-like painting from 1941; Earle W. Richardson’s piercing and haunting self-portrait from 1934 donated by family; and Jack Whitten’s jarring, mixed media 1989 abstract. 

One of the most striking works in the gallery is Whitfield Lovell’s collection of 54 charcoal portraits with playing cards, Round Card Series, 2006-11 that takes up a whole wall (with each portrait paired with a card from the deck, including jokers). 

Both a reflection of African-Americans and a strong survey of artists past and present, the Visual Arts Gallery plans to devote at least one part of it to changing exhibitions, in an attempt to showcase the myriad talent in a field that cannot afford, like much of the rest of museum, to be fixed for a decade. 

"Visual Art and the American Experience" is a new inaugural exhibition on view in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Timed-entry passes are now available at the museum's website or by calling ETIX Customer Support Center at (866) 297-4020. Timed passes are required for entry to the museum and will continue to be required indefinitely.

Oral history interview with Jack Whitten, 2009 December 1-3

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 130 pages.

An interview of Jack Whitten conducted 2009 December 1 and 3, by Judith Olch Richards, for the Archives of American Art, at Whitten's studio, in Woodside, N.Y.

Whitten speaks of his childhood in Bessemer, Alabama; being an African-American in the segregated South; his time at the Tuskegee Institute and Southern University; his participation in a civil rights march; the influence of jazz; his time at Cooper Union in New York, the abstract expressionists of New York including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Phillip Guston; his teaching at Cooper Union and School of Visual Arts; his 9/11 experience and the memorial that it led him to create; how his work varies between his summers in Greece and his studio time in New York; movement of his work from figurative expressionism to process painting and experimentation and how it fits between form and meaning; the concepts of horizontality, non-relational abstraction, and third-wave modernism; the galleries of the Horodner Romley, Daniel Weinberg, Alexander Grey, Thomas Flor, and other spaces; Whitten also recalls Leo Amino, Bob Blackburn, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Wayne Theibaud, Bob Thompson and others.

Oral history interview with Terry Dintenfass, 1974 December 2-1975 January 13

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 75 pages

Interview of Terry Dintenfass conducted 1974 December 2-1975 January 13, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art, in her home in New York, New York.

Dintenfass speaks of her family; education; travel; studying with Franklin Chenault Watkins and Clayton Whitehall at the Philadelphia College of Art; working as a nurse; her galleries in Atlantic City, New Jersey; social protest painting; buying American paintings for Armand Erpf; her apprenticeship with Herman Baron; critics; discovering Sidney Goodman; women art dealers; and visiting Georgia O'Keeffe. She recalls Charles Alan, Hyman Bloom, Philip Evergood, Robert Gwathmey, Edith Halpert, Jacob Lawrence, and others.

The Fisherman and the River Goddess with his Captured Multi-Colored Fishes and the River Night Guard

National Museum of African Art
Horizontal oil, pastel and ink on wood panel with two figures in a boat, trees in the background and fish in the bottom of the boat.

Oral history interview with Edith Gregor Halpert, 1962-1963

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 436 p.

An interview of Edith Halpert conducted 1962-1963, by Harlan Phillips, for the Archives of American Art.

Halpert speaks of her childhood in Russia and growing up in New York City; working at Bloomindale's, Macy's, Stern Brothers, and Cohen Goldman; her marriage to artist Sam Halpert, his health, and living in Paris in 1925; becoming an art student at the Academy of Design and feeling that Leon Kroll was an excellent art teacher until he began to correct her drawings; when George Bridgman thought she was ruining his class; the Lincoln Square Arcade, when she and Ernest Fiener and Robert Brackman would rent Conan's studio evenings and bring in instructors; how Newman Montross influenced her more than anybody about showing her art that she loved; burning all of her work because Kroll said she had no talent; receiving a painting from John Marin; her friendship and working relationship with Abby Rockefeller and other family members.

She recalls opening the Downtown Gallery, in Greenwich Village, in 1926; a brief history of modern art; many artists helping decorate the new Daylight Gallery in 1930 and the first show being called "Practical Manifestations of Art"; meeting Robert and Sonia Delaunay in France; when she refused to allow Ezra Pound to speak at one of the gallery lectures because of his anti-Semite remarks and William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford argued with her over it; experiencing jealousy and professional attacks from other dealers; the successful "Pop" Hart show and book in 1929; the "Thirty-three Moderns" show in 1930 at the Grand Central Galleries; the Jules Pascin show in 1930; in America, most of the art buyers supporters of culture were women, until the WPA and World War II, when it became fashionable for men to be involved; Ambroise Vollard's advice on selling art; handling the frustrations of working in the art field; friendships with Stuart Davis,Charles Sheeler, and Ben Shahn; how artists work through dry periods in their creativity and the "Recurrent Image" show; a discussion on modern art galleries of New York City, such as Daniel, Knoedler, Ferargil, the New Gallery, 291, the Grand Central, Kraushaar, and Montross; her travels through Pennsylvania and Maine for good examples of folk art for the gallery; the "The Artist Looks at Music" show; the non-competitive spirit of the early modern American artists; of being saved financially in 1940 by selling a William Harnett painting to the Boston Museum and then renting new space for the gallery.

Also, Mitchell Siporin bringing Halpert and Edmund Gurry to Mitchell Field during World War II for a camouflage show and consequently Downtown Gallery artists and others were enlisted in the camouflage corps for the U.S. Air Force; Charles Sheeler and his wife find Halpert a house in Newtown, Conn.; her decision in 1933 to push folk art for acquisition by the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri; her great concern about what to do with her folk art literature collection; dismay and that no one writes about the history of folk art and those responsible for its creation and popularity; Louis Stern hiring her to organize a municipal exhibit in Atlantic City, N.J., with Donald Deskey designing the furniture and Holger Cahill managing the publicity; Joe Lillie helping her meet Fiorello La Guardia and Joe McGoldrick in 1934 about a municipal show in New York City, but it is moved to Radio City Music Hall through Nelson Rockefeller; the "Salons of America" show; wanting articles written about art for love rather than art for investment; working with Aline Saarinen on her book, "Proud Possessors;" letters from Stuart Davis, William Zorach and others that hurt her feelings; enjoying giving educational lectures and considering retirement because of ill health; the desire to write a book on the history of trade signs in folk art; feeling that the young artists are being ruined by too much support without working for it; planning to write a book entitled, "Unsung Heroes," about artists brave enough to experiment; organizing a show in Russia at her own expense; later representing the U.S. in art at the "American National Exposition"; the agitators and success of the exposition; Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Halpert also recalls Juliana Force, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Buckminster Fuller, George Luks, Edsel Ford, Max Weber, Danny Diefenbacker, Hamilton Easter Field, Frank Stella, Glenn Coleman, Margaret Zorach, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Henry Mercer, Romany Marie, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Mellon, Charles Pollet, Alex Brook, Lunca Curass, Dorothy Lambert, Duncan Candler, Frank Rhen, Louis Rittman, Bea Goldsmith, Arthur Craven, Robert Frost, Philip Wittenberg, Caesar de Hoke, Richard deWolfe Brixey, Seymour Knox, Walt Kuhn, Elisabeth Luther Cary, Charles Locke, Duncan Fergusson, Mrs. Solomon Guggenheim, Bob Tannahill, David Thompson, Marsden Hartley, Erwin Barrie, Robert Laurent, Conger Goodyear, Henry McBride, Edward Hopper, Charles Daniel, William Merritt Chase, Charles Hopkinson, Thomas Hart Benton, Frank Crowninshield, Alfred Barr, Lord Duveen, Jacob Lawrence, John Marin Jr., Karl Zerbe, Franz Kline, Arthur Dove, Julian Levy, Jack Levine, Valentine Dudensing, Peggy Bacon, Stefan Hirsch, Gertrude Stein, Isamu Noguchi, Jasper Johns, Chaim Soutine, B. K. Saklatwalla; Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso, Ben Shahn, Charles Demuth, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Edward Steichen, Carl Sandburg, Clement Greenberg, and others.

Oral history interview with Everett Ellin, 2004 April 27-28

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 78 pages

An interview of Everett Ellin conducted 2004 April 27-28, by Liza Kirwin, for the Archives of American Art, in Washington, D.C.

Ellin speaks of his childhood and early education in Chicago; taking an aptitude test in high school and learning that he had multiple aptitudes; attending the University of Michigan and earning a BSE in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering; earning a law degree at Harvard Law School; his tour as an Air Force officer and tenure as law clerk to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court; working at Columbia Pictures as house legal counsel; serving as aid for the vice president at William Morris Agency; studying acting; Hollywood in the 1950s; opening his own gallery, the Everett Ellin Gallery, in Los Angeles, in 1957-1958; his marriage to painter Jane Jacobs; working for French & Company, in New York in 1959, as director of the contemporary gallery; Clement Greenberg's role at French & Company; opening his second gallery in Los Angeles, the Everett Ellin Gallery, Inc., 1960-1963; artists he has shown including Bruce Beasely, Jasper Johns, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, and others; represented working for Marlborough Gallery, in New York, as director, 1963-1964; organizing the Jackson Pollock retrospective at Marlborough Gallery in 1964; being hired by Harry Guggenheim as public affairs officer of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and his promotion to assistant director; travel to Peru to help organize an exhibition of Peruvian ceramics for the Guggenheim; founding the Museum Computer Network (MCN) and establishing a base of operations at the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Mellon Foundation; early MCN planning meetings; and his vision for the future of MCN. He recalls artists Lee Krasner, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and others; collectors Frederick Weisman, Edward G. Robinson, Milton Sperling; museum professionals Rene d'Harnoncourt, Thomas Messer, Lawrence Alloway, Frank O'Hara, Walter Hopps, and others.

Queen of Hearts

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden