“The Swearing In” (1977) by Jacob Lawrence


DEPICTING THE WINTER CHILL of Inauguration Day, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) relied on a trio of visual cues—bare-branched trees; a two-toned blue sky; and a series of figures huddled in coats, hats, and scarves. Rich with narrative, an efficient composition, methodic use of color, and rigorous attention to shape and form, the work possesses all the hallmarks of Lawrence. Produced in 1977, he called the silkscreen image of Americans assembled to bear witness to the peaceful transition of the U.S. presidency, “The Swearing In.”

Lawrence’s inauguration scene was commissioned by the Carter-Mondale Inaugural Committee, part of a fundraising effort to defray the costs of keeping Washington, D.C., museums open late during Inauguration Week.

Five artists, Lawrence, Andy Warhol, Jamie Wyeth, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg participated in the “Inaugural Impressions” project. Each produced a print and the set was issued as a limited-edition portfolio of 100 that sold for $2,500.

(An additional 20 “special proofs” were pulled. A pair was presented to President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale, two were retained by each artist, and the remainder were distributed to those who worked on the project.)

The Washington Post and The New York Times reported on the print project. The Inaugural Committee raised about $150,000, plenty apparently, to cover the costs of extended hours at the museums. The artists each received $10,000 and about $50,000 was designated for production costs.

On Jan. 20, 1977, 44 years ago today, all of the artists, except Warhol, attended President Carter’s inauguration. Six months later, they were invited to the White House for a “thank you” reception on the occasion of an exhibition featuring their works at the House Administration Committee room in the U.S. Capitol.

Originally planned for the White House Rose Garden, the June 14 reception was moved inside to the State Dining Room, due to light rain. The prints were on display and President Carter spent some time looking over the works.

Carter declared, “I like them,” according to the Times. If the President looked closely, he would have seen that three of Lawrence’s figures are waving small American flags. The Post called the nine-color screenprint “superb.”

If the President Carter looked closely, he would have seen that three of Jacob Lawrence’s figures are waving small American flags. The Washington Post called the nine-color screenprint ‘superb.’

People have climbed up into the trees in Lawrence’s image, clamoring for a better view of the swearing in. “I see it as the most important ingredient of the election and the inauguration, and that’s the people themselves,” the artist said, according to “Jacob Lawrence the Complete Prints.”

Historically and traditionally, the National Mall is the American gathering place, a nexus for celebration, commemoration, and peaceful demonstration. Stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, with the corridor of Smithsonian museums and the Washington Monument in between, it is in this space, that Americans from around the nation gather to observe and celebrate the inauguration of the U.S. President every four years.

Today, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., will be sworn in at 12 noon as the 46th President of the United States and former Sen. Kamala D. Harris will make history, becoming the first woman, first Black, and first Asian American ever to serve as Vice President of the United States.

The National Mall is ordinarily flooded with the American people on this momentous occasion. Today, it is vacant and empty. Attendance was already expected to be limited under the veil of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States. Now the space is completely shut down, closed to the public under unprecedented military and police security in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the Capitol building by armed and violent Trump supporters. The threat to national leadership, and by extension the general public, looms large. On Inauguration Day, “the people themselves” that Lawrence referenced, are absent.

(In their stead, a field of flags fills the National Mall representing the countless American people who would ordinarily attend the Inauguration.)

LAWRENCE RETURNED TO THE WHITE HOUSE in 1990 to receive the National Medal of Arts from President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. During President George W. Bush’s Administration, the White House Historical Association purchased “The Builders” (1947) by Lawrence and donated the painting to the permanent White House Collection. The posthumous acquisition in 2007 was a part of First Lady Laura Bush’s update of the White House Green Room.

In 1977, Carter aide Tom Beard had spearheaded the portfolio fundraiser and by June he was departing the White House headed to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) where he would serve as a “liaison between fundraising and the arts.”

After Beard was criticized for not including women artists in the “Inaugural Impressions” project, according to the Post, his first order of business at the DNC was a limited-edition project to raise funds for the party’s Equal Rights Amendment committee.

“I just wasn’t thinking,” Beard told the Post. “Now I know better. I know you won’t believe me, but I didn’t even know Jacob Lawrence was black.” CT


IMAGE: JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Swearing In,” 1977 (color screenprint on cream wove paper, 457 x 711 mm / 18 x 28 inches), Edition of 100. | Printed by the Screenprint Workshop, East Hampton, N.Y., Published by © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


UPDATED (01/20/21)


“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” was published on the occasion of the current exhibition of the same name. “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” coincided with “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” the Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by Lawrence’s seminal series. Also consider, “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence” and the complete Jacob Lawrence catalog raisonne, published in 2000. “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem,” is a great introduction to Lawrence for children.


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