Connected \\ January 15, 2020
The peoples' struggle
The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.
Jacob Lawrence, Thousands of American citizens have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them: they have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation. — Madison, 1 June 1812, Panel 19, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Stephen Petegorsky.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle also features works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins and Hank Willis Thomas, who powerfully assert that America’s struggles — for democracy, justice, truth and inclusion — continue today.
Derrick Adams. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Photo by Mark Poucher.
Bethany Collins Courtesy of the artist and PATRON. Photo by Chris Edward.
Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo by Andrea Blanch.
The Struggle series is not Lawrence’s first use of modestly scaled panels to tell a sweeping epic. Born in 1917, Lawrence broke through the color line of New York’s segregated art world when, at the age of 23, he created The Migration Series, a historical narrative that was instantly recognized as a masterpiece and became the first work by a black artist to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
Once he decided he wanted to visualize a more complete American history, Lawrence spent countless hours at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture in Harlem) poring over historical texts that included first-person accounts, letters and coded messages from individuals on all sides of the American Revolution. For more than five years he read and researched, and then in May 1954, just as the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate American schools, he began to paint.
Jacob Lawrence, . . . If we fail, let us fail like men, and expire together in one common struggle . . . —Henry Clay, 1813, Panel 23, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM.
Lawrence’s often lengthy captions that accompany the panels feature excerpts from famous speeches as well as reports, letters and petitions from anonymous soldiers and enslaved people. Panel 8 depicts the image of clashing soldiers in the Battle of Bennington in 1777, accompanied by the caption “... again the rebels rushed furiously on our men,” which is from an account written by a Hessian mercenary (German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British army).
The viewer is left to consider the fate of the Hessians, as well as the fate of other mercenaries such as black soldiers who fought in the war. Ironically, after the war, the Hessian soldiers would be granted citizenship long before the descendants of blacks who fought and died in the American Revolution.