Struggle Series No-1. 13

 

RECOGNIZED FOR HIS RAPT ATTENTION to the historic narratives of African Americans, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) envisioned a series of paintings about the history of the United States that would encompass all of the nations’s people. In 1954, Lawrence began working on “Struggle…From the History of the American People” (1954-56), a new series conceived as a book project.

After producing multi-panel series on Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Lawrence continued to study the history of black perseverance, spending time around the fall of 1940 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem conducting research for his celebrated Migration series.

More than a decade later, he returned to the Schomburg to embark on research for Struggle, 60 paintings originally intended to span the American Revolution, the nation’s founding, path toward democracy, struggles with slavery and the annexation of Indian territory through the 1870s-era Industrial Revolution.

jacob lawrence - AAA_valealfr_4483Ultimately, Lawrence finished only 30 panels in the Struggle series documenting America’s history through the westward expansion of 1817. Twelve of the paintings are currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. through Aug. 9, 2015.

The Phillips Collection owns the odd-numbered panels in Lawrence’s Migration series, which are mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). MoMA owns the even-numbered panels and has brought all 60 together for “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” a major exhibition (April 3-Sept. 7, 2015) that presents Lawrence’s paintings in context with interpretations of the mass migration from the rural South to the urban North by other artists spanning generations and discplines, including literature, poetry, film and music.

With its cherished Migration works on loan, Phillips has turned its attention to an important body of Lawrence’s work that is under studied and rarely on public view.

“The Phillips Collection has a proud history of presenting and studying Lawrence’s celebrated art and life; therefore we are especially pleased to shed light on the artist’s extraordinary achievement in the Struggle series,” said curator Elsa Smithgall in a press release. “Striking in both content and form, these paintings represent a turning point in Lawrence’s career at mid-century.”

“Striking in both content and form, these paintings represent a turning point in Lawrence’s career at mid-century.”
— Curator Elsa Smithgall, The Phillips Collection

According to “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence” (2000), as cited from a letter in the Jacob Lawrence Papers at Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Lawrence reached out to the Chapelbrook Foundation in December 1954. Seeking grant support for the Struggle series, he explained the project:

    It was about five years ago that I first conceived the idea of doing a series of paintings relating the history of the Negro people in the United States. As this idea began to develope [sic] and take form, and as I read more of the history of the United States, I gradually began to appreciate not only the struggle and contributions of the Negro people, but also to appreciate the rich and exciting story of America and all of the peoples who emigrated [sic] to the “New World” and contributed to the creation of the United States.

As I read more of the history of the United States, I gradually began to appreciate not only the struggle and contributions of the Negro people, but also to appreciate the rich and exciting story of America and all of the peoples who emigrated [sic] to the ‘New World.’
— Jacob Lawrence, December 1954 letter

A timeline detailing Lawrence’s life and accomplishments appears on the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation website and is published in “Over the Line,” the first book to explore in depth the Lawrence’s entire career. The chronology includes a handful of entries marking the development and progress of the Struggle series:

 
    1954

    May: Completes five study drawings, after beginning research at Schomburg earlier in the year.

    May-July: Continues work on Struggle series as a fellow at Yaddo Foundation in Sarasota Springs, N.Y. Completes six paintings by year’s end.

    December 16: Applies for Chapelbrook Foundation fellowship, seeking $2,000 to continue working on series. Lawrence estimates that with the fellowship he will complete series in two years.

    1955

    September-November: Continues work on Struggle series during second Yaddo Foundation fellowship. Completes 10 more paintings by the end of the year.

 

By 1956, Lawrence had completed the first 30 panels of Struggle and in December the series was exhibited at Alan Gallery in New York. Charles Alan, the gallery owner, was Lawrence’s dealer at the time.

 

jacob lawrence - time mag. jan. 1957
A review of Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series appeared on page 82 of the Jan. 14, 1957 issue of Time magazine. Click image to enlarge page

 

Lawrence was only 39 years old when a brief un-bylined review of the Struggle series appeared in the Jan. 14, 1957 issue of Time magazine. Ironically titled, “Birth of a Nation,” it states in part:

“While staying clear of most set historical tableau scenes, Lawrence has managed to bring fresh drama to those he found irresistible, e.g., Washington crossing the Delaware River, which he shows as a series of crowded boats in muted greens and browns, covered and muffled against the bright blue water to capture the quality of ‘violence, but a quiet feeling as well.'”

“While staying clear of most set historical tableau scenes, Lawrence has managed to bring fresh drama to those he found irresistible, e.g., Washington crossing the Delaware River.”
— Time magazine, January 1957

Lawrence decided to cease working on the series later in 1957, never pursuing the additional 30 panels he had initially planned. A second Struggle exhibition was mounted at Alan Gallery in May 1958, after which the “series is sold intact to a collector who breaks it up and sells panels individually over a 30-year period,” according to the timeline.

Today, the location and ownership of two of the panels is unknown. Panel “No. 10: Washington Crossing the Delaware,” belongs to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and a dozen paintings from the series are in the Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross Collection. These are the panels being shown at the Phillips Collection.

The Phillips presentation is on view in a modest gallery space perfectly suited to accommodate the 12 paintings executed in egg tempera on 12 x 16 inch hardboard panels. The exhibition includes an invaluable key to the Struggle series, featuring images of each of the 30 works and their narrative captions, including blank spaces for the two canvases whose whereabouts are unresolved

“Whether they treat a particular incident or a more general theme, the Struggle paintings are unified by a compositional dynamism that suggests conflict instead of progress,” art historian Richard J. Powell writes in “Over the Line.”

“In both ‘Massacre in Boston’ and ‘Victory and Defeat,’ Lawrence’s placement of patterned and/or chromatically fragmented areas next to solid areas of color insinuated conflict, battle, and indeed, struggle, sensibilities that were at the core of Lawrence’s interpretation of American history.” CT

 

ABOVE IMAGES: Top, JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “Mo. 13: Victory and Defeat,” 1955 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection; Above, at right, Jacob Lawrence in 1957, the year after he finished working on the Struggle series. | Alfredo Valente, photographer. Alfredo Valente papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

Struggle Series No. 1
JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “No. 1: …Is Life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?,” 1955 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection

 

Struggle Series No. 5
JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “No. 5: We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!– Petition of Many Slaves, 1773,” 1955 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection

 

Struggle Series No. 12
JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “No. 12: And a Woman Mans a Cannon,” 1955 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection

 

Struggle Series No. 17
JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle…From the History of the American People, “No. 17: I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing by the issue of this interview -Hamilton Before His Duel With Burr, 1804,” 1956 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection

 

Struggle Series No. 18
JACOB LAWRENCE, Struggle¬From the History of the American People, no. 18: In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit -Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803,” 1956 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Courtesy The Phillips Collection