“Strategy” (1994) by Jacob Lawrence

 

IN THE HANDS OF Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), images of revolution and rebellion are both “serious,” as the artist described them, and radically imagined. His narrative series depicting the life and leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture includes a portrait of the Haitian liberator in profile in formal military dress, an intense scene with L’Ouverture mapping out battle strategy, and “The March” capturing a tightly formed line of soldiers with rifles, a display of rhythm, momentum, and determination.

“Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” is on view at DC Moore Gallery in New York. From 1936-38, Lawrence produced 41 tempura paintings documenting the legacy of the revolutionary leader. The artist was only 21-years-old at the time. A half century later, Lawrence began a series of 15 silk screen prints inspired by the original works. Produced between 1986 and 1997 with artist and master printer Lou Stovall, the complete print series is rarely seen together, according to the gallery. DC Moore is displaying the silk screens through March 2.

L’Ouverture led the Haitian Revolution, a struggle lasting more than a dozen years that ultimately resulted in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, independence from European rule, and the abolition of slavery. Haiti is the only nation where slaves won their freedom by force and in 1804 became the first black republic in the West.

Using the same approach exercised over the course of his practice, Lawrence documented the historic period with a modern style and methodic use of color. Each image is composed with rigorous attention to line, shape, and form. Throughout the series, the terrain is defined by fiery blades of tall grass that give depth to the landscape—usually in shades of green, but also in blue, red, and other hues. The foliage reads as a reference to the crops grown by white plantation owners (including sugar, cotton, and tobacco), as well as illustrating a sense of tension.

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “The March,” 1995 (silk screen on paper, 18 x 28 inches). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 

LAWRENCE’S MULTI-PANEL SERIES are among his best known works. In the fall of 1940, he spent time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem conducting research for his celebrated Migration series (1940-41). Prior to making the Migration series, the artist painted epic series about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and later John Brown. The L’Ouverture series was produced before all of them and was his first multi-panel project.

Jacob Lawrence’s multi-panel series are among his best known works. Prior to making the Migration series, the artist produced epic series about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and later John Brown. The Toussaint L’Ouverture series was his first multi-panel project.

According to the David C. Driskell Center, the L’Ouverture series debuted at the De Porres Interracial Council in New York in 1938, Lawrence’s first solo show outside of Harlem. The series was also featured in the exhibition “Contemporary Negro Art” (February 1939) at the Baltimore Museum of Art and two of the L’Ouverture paintings were reproduced in the publication Survey Graphic (March 1939).

Today, the paintings are in the collection of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of the 41 original panels.

Lawrence completed the L’Ouverture prints more than two decades ago, just three years before he died. In 2017, The Phillips Collection presented the full set of screen prints from Stovall’s collection. The museum also described the print series as “rarely seen” in its entirety. Last year, the L’Ouverture prints from the collection of Harriet and Harmon Kelley were on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

 


Installation view of “Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” DC Moore Gallery, New York, N.Y. (Jan. 31-March 2, 2019). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 

THE ARTIST COLLABORATED with Walter Dean Myers on a children’s book featuring the series. Published in 1996, “Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom” marries Lawrence’s art with text by Myers.

Lawrence contributed a brief introduction to the book. He shares his experience growing up in Harlem where he heard street corner orators regale passersby with “the deeds and exploits” of historic figures such as Douglass, Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Marcus Garvey, and L’Ouverture. The artist wrote:

    These orators would tell their stories with pride, drama, and great passion, and I would listen in awe and excitement. These were heroes to whom I could relate. I was inspired and motivated to tell these stories in paint—in a serious form. My first subject was Toussaint L’Ouverture, a very brave and brilliant leader who defeated those who would enslave him, and in so doing deny him and others equality, justice, and fraternity.

    In winning the battle for Haiti’s freedom, Toussaint L’Ouverture joined the ranks of those who have fought and contributed much to our continuous struggle for liberty.

L’Ouverture was “a great man,” Lawrence said, adding that he would always regard him as one of his heroes. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: JACOB LAWRENCE, “Strategy,” 1994 (Silk screen on paper, 18 1/2 x 28 5/8 inches). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 

“Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” is on view at DC Moore Gallery, New York, N.Y., from Jan. 31-March 2, 2019

 

BOOKSHELF
In “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence,” essays by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and Paul Kalstrom touch on the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, giving critical and racial/political context, respectively. Described as the definitive biography of the Haitian liberator, “Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life,” by Philippe Girard was published in 2016. “The March,” an image from Jacob Lawrence’s series, graces the cover of “African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents.” In addition to “Toussaint L’ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom,” Jacob Lawrence’s narrative history series have inspired children’s books about Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the Great Migration. Many other volumes have been published about the Migration Series, including several exhibition catalogs. Finally, “Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-40” documents an exhibition organized by Hampton University Museum.

 


From left, JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Birth of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” 1986 (silk screen on paper, 32 1/8 x 22 inches) and “General Toussaint L’Ouverture,” 1986 (silk screen on paper, 32 1/8 x 22 inches). | Both courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 


Washington, D.C.-based artist and master printer Lou Stovall recalls the meticulous process of matching the green Jacob Lawrence used in his original painting of “General Toussaint L’Ouverture.” | Video by The Phillips Collection

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “Dondon,” 1992 (silk screen on paper, 22 x 32 inches). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 


From left, JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Coachman,” 1990 (silk screen on paper, 32 1/8 x 22 inches) and “The Capture,” 1987 (silk screen on paper, 32 1/8 x 22 inches). | Both courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “To Preserve Their Freedom,” 1988 (silk screen on paper, 22 x 32 1/8 inches). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “Toussaint at Ennery,” 1989 (Silk screen on paper, 22 x 32 1/8 inches). | Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

 

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