In his Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman series of narrative paintings, Jacob Lawrence depicts the struggles and triumphs of two of the major figures in the antislavery movement. These two series, completed between 1938 and 1940, are the most closely related in both subject matter and style of Lawrence's career. Together they constitute a stunning and thought-provoking exhibition. After researching the lives of Douglass and Tubman, Lawrence believed that no one painting could tell their stories, so he painted over 30 panels for each series. Lawrence also wrote a caption for each painting, which corresponds to an event in the lives of the heroes.
"Lives Connected: Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight" combines an already existing exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's narrative series organized by the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia, with a new, Institute organized exhibition of nearly 30 works by Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence's wife and partner of 56 years. Institute director and CEO Evan M. Maurer recognized in the artistic partnership of Lawrence and Knight a parallel to the shared crusade of Douglass and Tubman. Maurer presented the concept for this exhibition to his friends, the Lawrences. Though they have worked side by side as artists, it is only recently that Knight has received critical attention, and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to bring their work to the public as a single presentation. "The Lawrences began their partnership in life and art almost 60 years ago," Maurer explained. "By bringing their work to the public as a single presentation we complete the circle."
The couple first became friends in Harlem in the 1930s. Despite the Depression, Harlem still retained elements of its remarkable Renaissance of the 1920s, and literature, music, theater, and the visual arts continued to flourish. The couple both worked on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project in Harlem. Artists employed by the project would gather at Charles Alston's studio at 306 West 141 Street, and it was there that Knight and Lawrence mingled with Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holiday, Romare Beardon and other artists, performers, writers, and musicians. Knight painted murals for the children's ward of the Harlem hospital, while Lawrence worked on the Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman series.
Their friendship evolved, and Lawrence and Knight married on July 24, 1941. The following November, Jacob's 60-panel series, Migration of the Negro, was exhibited at New York's prestigious Downtown Gallery to critical acclaim. At age 24, Lawrence became the first African American to be represented by a New York gallery. When the series sold, he also became the first African American whose work was included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Although Knight didn't receive the same recognition and affirmation, she nonetheless continued to pursue her art.
Soon after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Lawrence was drafted into the U.S. Coast Guard. During his 26 month absence, Knight continued to paint and also to study with the New Dance Group under Jane Dudley and Sophie Maslow, two of Martha Graham's star pupils. After Lawrence's discharge in 1945, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; his successful teaching career continued at Pratt Institute, Brandeis University, the Art Students League, and The New School for Social Research, where Knight painted with Anthony Toney. In 1971, the couple moved from New York to Seattle, where Lawrence began teaching at the University of Washington; he currently is professor emeritus there. Only after moving to the West Coast did Knight have her first solo show—at age 63.
Instead of competing with each other, Lawrence and Knight have always been mutually supportive and encouraging. Their quite different artistic temperaments may be the key to their longevity as a creative couple. Knight appears to favor a fluid line and to concentrate on the subtleties of color and light to produce her lyrical, seemingly spontaneous art. She often works on the same paintings for years, and loves the accidental and unpredictable effects of the monoprint. By contrast, Lawrence's style—sometimes called collage cubism—is characterized by simplified, flat forms of vivid color within controlled outlines, and his technique is the antithesis of spontaneous.
For the 32 paintings of the Frederick Douglass series and the 31 paintings of the Harriet Tubman series, Lawrence painstakingly coated each 12 X 17 7/8-inch hardboard panel with gesso to achieve a fresco-like surface. Next, he penciled the designs on all the panels and lined them up against his studio wall to study the overall effect. When he began to paint, he used a limited palette of red, blue, green, yellow, tan, brown, black, and white, working with one color at a time, he applied it to all the panels before moving on to the next color. He believed this helped to keep the values and intensities of the colors consistent throughout the series and also united the separate panels to form a single work of art. Lawrence still uses this method today.
The subject matter of the two artists also reflects their differences. Lawrence "tells stories," primarily of African-American history and social justice. He chose the subjects of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman because he believed that these were great heroes who should be included in American history. He also felt that by bringing these historical figures into the present, contemporary African Americans would be inspired and find the courage to overcome their own hardships.
Knight, on the other hand, finds her motifs in the people and experiences of her life. For example, her love of modern dance influences her work: "Dance is the way I draw, the way I work. I'm interested in gesture." In 1994 at the age of 81, she mastered a new medium, creating a series of monoprints. Although she has traditionally worked from the model, she proved herself flexible and open to new experiences when she elected to draw the images for the monoprints from her memory.
Superficially, the connection between these two artists isn't apparent. Jacob Lawrence acknowledged a stronger bond when he said, "A layman looking at our work would not think that mine looked like Gwen's or that Gwen's looked like mine. Our influence on each other is much more dimensional and much more profound than that." Through their long and productive friendship and marriage Knight and Lawrence have provided each other with unwavering support. Although distinctly different in temperament and style, the couple has enjoyed a long and vital relationship in which creativity and expression have flourished, enriching both their lives and their art and providing all of us with both visual treasures and human inspiration.
Lisa Dickinson Michaux is the John E. Andrus III Curatorial Assistant in the department of prints & drawings and co-curator of the exhibit along with Evan M. Maurer.
Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, 1993
Photo by Spike Mafford
Frederick Douglass series, no. 4
Tempera on hardboard
Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia
Courtesy of Francine Seders Gallery
Portrait of the Artist, about 1968-91
Oil on canvas
Collection of Marshall and Helen Hatch
Frederick Douglass series, no. 21
Tempera on hardboard
Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia