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, 1954


The American history boldly put forth by Jacob Lawrence expands beyond what most people encountered in social studies class. After five years of exhaustive library research, the black American artist set out to create a series of paintings that offered a broader, more encompassing history of the country, one that celebrated the unsung and underrepresented alongside the founding fathers.

Lawrence introduces us to people like Margaret Cochran Corbin, who, on November 16, 1776, accompanied her husband into the Battle of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. When he was killed by the British, she filled his post, loading and firing the cannon with great accuracy before drawing enemy fire. She struggled all her life, a disabled veteran who earned a pension half the size of the men’s.

The artist highlights the contributions of the Creole people, immigrants, Kentuckians and enslaved men who fought with Governor Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 to defeat the British. And, he celebrates the nameless laborers who built the Erie Canal across New York state from 1817 to 1825 to fortify the country’s pathway to economic prosperity.

Struggle, Lawrence believed and made the case for in his paintings, is what we all have in common as Americans.


Jacob Lawrence seated in front of Struggle panels 26 and 27, 1958. © Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Jacob Lawrence seated in front of Struggle panels 26 and 27, 1958. © Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.


On January 18, PEM debuts Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, the first museum exhibition to reunite the series of paintings Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56). Painted at the dawn of the Civil Rights era by one of the best-known black American artists of the 20th century, his 30 small-scale panels depict pivotal moments in early American history, from 1770 to 1817.

The exhibition, organized by PEM and touring nationally through 2021, brings American history to life through Lawrence’s energetic paintings that hug the boundary between figuration and abstraction.

These are history paintings like you have never seen before,” says Lydia Gordon, PEM Associate Curator for Exhibitions and Research. “They are filled with tension, often violent, multilayered and complicated. They are also brilliant. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I am able to work with an amazing team on a show of this magnitude on an artist of this caliber."

This exhibition reunites the Struggle series for the first time in 60 years. While 25 of the 30 paintings are accounted for, the whereabouts of the other five are unknown. In the gallery, the known works are presented alongside reproductions of the missing paintings as well as works too fragile to travel.

Panel 19, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56

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

Derrick Adams. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Photo by Mark Poucher.


Bethany Collins

Bethany Collins Courtesy of the artist and PATRON. Photo by Chris Edward.


Hank Willis Thomas

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.

Panel 23, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56

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.

Panel 27, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56.

Jacob Lawrence, . . . for freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enuff . . . —a Georgia slave, 1810, Panel 27, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Private Collection. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation,Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


“I think the timing of this exhibition could not have been more meaningful,” says Gordon. “Lawrence imagining a different history and a different way forward is incredibly productive. There is power in research, relying on the facts. His art has the power to encourage difficult conversations that we need to be having: What is the cost of democracy for all?”

To celebrate the opening of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, PEM is free to the public during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend (January 18–20). Explore the work of Jacob Lawrence and learn how the artist’s Struggle series reimagines American history through a day of public programming that includes gallery experiences, a listening session with community thought leaders, a talk with contemporary artist Bethany Collins, music and art making. For more details, visit pem.org/lawrence.

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