Connected \\ October 22, 2020

Lawrence exhibition leads to discovery of a lost work

Months before we put Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series on view at PEM last January, we began to dream that our exhibition of Lawrence’s works depicting the struggle for American democracy would help turn up several lost pieces of the narrative.

Reuniting a lost series is a project of great significance. Struggle...From the History of the American People is the only series of paintings by the great American artist that didn’t stick together. We wanted to know why? And, more importantly, where were they? These were the driving questions behind the research to unearth Lawrence’s vision of American history from more than 60 years ago. After years of digging through the archives, papers, exhibition history and connecting with gallerists, private collectors and institutions, we knew enough to account for every painting in the series through their titles and therefore, give all 30 paintings their symbolic and interpretive place within the narrative. However, for two of them, we had no idea what they even looked like. They had disappeared from public memory almost immediately after they left Lawrence’s gallery.

Panel 28, 1956, painting location unknown.

Panel 28, 1956, painting location unknown. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Lucia | Marquand

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is the first museum exhibition to reunite the paintings as well as the first to nationally tour the series. Because of this exhibition, we have contributed new scholarship to the study of Lawrence, including a detailed chronology of the artist during his making of these paintings, what Lawrence wrote on the backs of them and how and why they struggled to find a forever home in a museum. Yet, there was much to be discovered, so instead of hiding what was missing, this exhibition presented all the known and missing parts as unfinished business. Panel 16 was represented as an empty frame, waiting to be filled.

The open endedness of the exhibition and the transparency of the project made it possible for viewers to ponder the possibilities. And that’s exactly what happened. The more people knew about this series, saw the paintings, heard the story, the more we hoped the missing pieces would surface. And surface one did, in New York City, across the park from where the exhibition is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met). Panel 16 was installed this week, joining the series at The Met for the last two weeks of the exhibition’s run there, before the series travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art, The Seattle Art Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

The panel has not been seen publicly since 1960, when the current owners purchased it at a local charity art auction. A recent visitor to The Met’s exhibition, who knew of a painting by the artist that had been in a neighbor’s collection for years, suspected that painting might belong to the Struggle series and encouraged the owners to contact the museum.

Panel 16 is a pivotal painting staging the struggles within America’s infant democracy. It reveals a scene from Shays’ Rebellion— the armed uprising in Springfield, Massachusetts against higher taxation from the state— in an image that has not been seen until now. Two groups of soldiers clash in the horizontal composition as opposing boots touch toes and bayonet tips pierce flesh. On both sides, steady hands grip weapons as they criss cross in the enclosing space between pacts. Lawrence reserved the most colorful scheme for the citizen army: the sunny yellow of a boot and cloak vibrates against a figure in evergreen. The rich blue of the uniforms that dominate throughout the Struggle paintings conjure the powerful triadic balance that made Lawrence a master colorist. Among this visual feast, anguish remains on faces from both sides— dread and exhaustion— fight not done fighting.

Jacob Lawrence, (American, 1917–2000). There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, Panel 16, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People , 1954–56.

Jacob Lawrence, (American, 1917–2000). There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, Panel 16, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People , 1954–56. Private Collection © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen.

This week’s New York Times story celebrates the find. According to the story, the couple who bought the painting in 1960 at a friend’s Christmas charity art auction, were not collectors and bought it for “a very modest sum.”

The painting has been hanging in my living room for 60 years untouched,” one of the painting’s owners said, adding that she bought it with her husband when she was 27. She said the pair had initially put off contacting the Peabody Museum early in the year because they were traveling to Florida. A child of immigrants, the owner said she grew up in the South Bronx and studied art appreciation — her daughter and granddaughter are both artists. She said she has always loved Lawrence’s work and is happy to share it.

What can you do to help? Please keep an eye out for the other missing panels. Is one of them in your aunt’s attic or on your friend’s wall? You can read about the remaining 4 missing panels, as well as all of the panels in the Struggle series, here at

In an art world that seems to constantly shift and stand still simultaneously, it is important to celebrate this long lost painting’s return to Lawrence’s oeuvre because we can now read the series more fully. There is so much more to say. To work on a project that gives so much back to the artist as well as to the many generations of people impacted by Lawrence’s timeless artistic vision is a thrill of a lifetime. It is art history!

Exhibition Tour Dates:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: August 29, 2020 - November 1, 2020
Birmingham Museum of Art: November 20, 2020 - February 7, 2021
Seattle Art Museum: March 5, 2021 - May 23, 2021
The Phillips Collection: June 26 - September 19, 2021

Organizing curators for Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle are Elizabeth Hutton Turner of the University of Virginia and Austen Barron Bailly of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, formerly of PEM.

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