JACOB LAWRENCE b. 1917
The Street, 1957
Casein on paper, 30 1/2 x 22 1/4," (77.47 X 56.51 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 986-W-111
Busy New York City street corners were favorite subjects for Jacob Lawrence, who began painting African -American genre pictures as a young man in Harlem during the Depression. An incident as commonplace as the gathering of mothers was probably witnessed often by Lawrence on the avenues of the Bedford Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn where he was living when The Street was painted.
The Street, revealing the lyrical side of Lawrence's art, is lighter in tone than his social commentary painting series, one of which, The Struggle (1955-56), he had recently completed. Still, it is rich with personal symbolism. Aside from the affectionate portrayal of day-to-day maternal rituals, The Street is truthful in deeper ways: Lawrence often espoused the idea of the heroic woman as a vital and nurturing force, a belief based on a devoted memory of his own mother, who had single-handedly raised him in Harlem, and on the intense kinship he felt with his artist-wife Gwen. In The Street, Lawrence also asserts the notion of the resilient African-American woman as a fortress against the racism and poverty that continue to beleaguer his people.
Like other American Scene painters, Lawrence was thrown on the defensive by the Abstract Expressionist tide that washed over New York in the 1950s, but he tenaciously clung to the belief in figurative art with liberal humanistic meaning. He told an audience of artists and art students at the time:
Maybe ... humanity to you has been reduced to the sterility of the line, the cube, the circle, and the square; devoid of all feeling, cold and highly esoteric. If this is so, I can well understand why you cannot portray the true America. It is because you have lost all feeling for man.... And your work shall remain without depth for as long as you can only see and respect the beauty of the cube, and not see and respect the beauty of man-every man.
Lawrence, son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, came to Harlem with his mother when he was three. During the 1930s he studied with the pioneer African-American artist, Charles Alston, and with Anton Refregier at the American Artist's School. These mentors, along with Lawrence's occasional work on W.P.A. projects, helped deepen the artist's social consciousness. He thrived on the company of budding African -American writers and artists still in Harlem even after the Harlem Renaissance had become another victim of the Great Depression. More fortunate than most of these Harlem friends, he enjoyed early recognition. His tempera and gouache series on African-American history, Toussaint L'Ouverture (1937-38), Frederick Douglas (1938-39), Harriet Tubman (1939-40), The Migration of the Negro (1940-41), and John Brown (1941-42) were praised by established critics and purchased by museums.4 Numerous individual paintings, some of lyrical and fantasy themes, also attracted favorable notice during the early 1940s.
Lawrence's style grew more complex in the 1950s. The figures of The Street are larger in size and prominence than those of the series paintings. The drawing is curt; the angled edges seem sharp enough to slide through the paper they are painted on. The colors are less brilliant and saturated than before, possibly because of the casein medium. An intricate pattern of darting shapes defines the women, the buggy, the pavement, the buildings, the fish balloons, and the sky. The background attains a force and energy equal to the figures. The individual features appear as if they could be pealed off the paper surface; the effect of the cadence of shredded patterns is an unexpected unity, a medley of dynamic design and poetic resonance.
Such sophisticated picture-making can be attributed to Lawrence's deepening knowledge of modern art. Working alongside Josef Albers at the Black Mountain College of Art in 1946 had a major effect on Lawrence's art through the 1950s, as did Pablo Picasso's Synthetic Cubist paintings and Ernst Kirchner's dagger-like Expressionism. Close contact with fellow artists Ben Shahn and Stuart Davis at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery did much to build his confidence and broaden his aesthetic outlook.
Two extended trips to Nigeria in the early 1960s and the events of the Civil Rights Movement brought a new social awareness to Lawrence's paintings after 1960. He became a professor of art at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he lives and works today.