Jacob Lawrence is among the most important African American artists of the last century. Growing up in Harlem shortly after the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence had access to some of the greatest artists and thinkers of his generation. This inspired Lawrence to paint everyday life and important figures within the African American community. He developed a straightforward and powerful painting style that captured the spirit of those he depicted.
Lawrence’s Migration series was among his most significant works. A series of 60 panels, it is a precise depiction of a major movement of the African American community between the two world wars. It is both a deeply personal work and a testament of his generation. The series is presented as a visual narrative told in several cycles, each one ending in a caption which reads “and the migrants kept coming.” Imagery of railroads and train stations links each story together. The first few panels portray the south as a desolate place rapt with inequality. As the migrants move north, the images become more optimistic. However, Lawrence did not shy away from the issues found in northern cities. Race riots and overcrowding were also addressed in the series.
The work was created with tempera paint. Tempera is a water based paint that dries quickly. Due to this, Lawrence needed to plan each detail of all 60 panels before he painted. Several panels were painted simultaneously, one color at a time.
In 1941, New York’s Downtown Gallery presented this series to the public. Lawrence was the first African American to be showcased at the gallery. Fortune Magazine printed 26 of the panels, giving Lawrence even more exposure. This won Lawrence public recognition. While the series was intended to be a single piece, the Museum of Modern Art and the Philips Collection each purchased half. Lawrence agreed only if the two institutions worked together to show it completely. While this was the case in the first few years, the Migration series remains fragmented.
Jacob Lawrence produced a number of other series depicting social realities and explorations of themes of labor and struggle. In 1971, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington and continued to teach and paint until his death in 2000.