Wadsworth Atheneum

Hartford, CT




Jacob Lawrence and Expressions of Freedom

January 29 - June 4, 2000


Jacob Lawrence, a figurative painter with an unequaled gift for storytelling, is renowned for visual dramatizations of the black American experience. Fifteen recent screen prints from the artist's celebrated Toussaint L 'Ouverture series are the heart of Jacob Lawrence and Expressions of Freedom, an exhibition presented by The Amistad Foundation at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, January 29 - June 4, 2000. (left: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), The March, 1995, screenprint, 18 x 28 inches. General L'Ouverture collected forces at Marmelade and on October 9, 1794, left with 500 men to capture San Miguel)

Lawrence, who has been foremost among African-American artists for more than six decades, has often devoted series of paintings to a single subject. These range from contemporary genre scenes, set in supermarkets and in Harlem; to historic events, including black migration to America's northern cities and the aftermath of Hiroshima; to sagas of heroic figures who symbolize the struggle for emancipation and equality. Among these are John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former Haitian slave who liberated his island-nation from French rule in 1795. (right: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), Strategy, 1994, screenprint, 18 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches. The Blacks were led by three chiefs, Jean François, Biassou and Jeannot; Toussaint serving as aide-de-camp to Biassou)

"With the new millennium, The Amistad Foundation launches a year-long exhibition series that examines the ideal and the reality of freedom in the 20th century," said its executive director, Deirdre Bibby. "Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint L 'Ouverture portfolio is an apt starting point for this exploration, for it is a brilliant commentary on the meaning and value of freedom, and the power of art to inform and transform." (left: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), To Preserve Their Freedom, 1988, screenprint, 18 1/2 x 28 1/4 inches. Napoléon's attempt to restore slavery in Haiti was unsuccessful. Desalines, Chief of the Blacks, defeated LeClerc. Black men, women and children took up arms to preserve their freedom, November 1802)

Toussaint L 'Ouverture was the first of Lawrence's many major series. Researched and created during 1937-38, and completed when he was only 21, the paintings thrust Lawrence onto the national art scene. His first solo show outside Harlem, held at the De Porres Interracial Council headquarters in Manhattan in 1938, was devoted to the Toussaint series. It was also a highlight of two major surveys of African-American art--in 1939 at the Baltimore Museum of Art (where the series was allotted its own gallery), and in 1940 in Chicago at the American Negro Exposition, where Lawrence won second prize. (left: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), St. Marc, 1994, screenprint, 28 7/16 x 18 1/2 inches. Settling down at St. Marc, he took possession of two important posts)

The original Toussaint series, painted in egg tempera on white paper, comprises forty-one panels, each measuring only eleven by nine inches. Lawrence also wrote captions to accompany the paintings. In 1986, when he began transferring these older paintings to screen prints, Lawrence decided to rework many of the images he had created a half century earlier. Image sizes were more than doubled, and colors and compositions were enhanced or brightened. (right: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), Deception, 1997, screenprint, 18 5/8 x 28 1/4 inches. During the truce Toussaint is deceived and arrested by LeClerc. LeClerc led Toussaint to believe that he was sincere, believing that when Toussaint was out of the way, the Blacks would surrender)

"Each of the fifteen panels, with their flat, sharply defined forms and their variations in a consistent color pattern, are charged with tremendous feeling and movement," Bibby stated. "Jacob Lawrence's striking use of dynamic compositional devices and complex figural interrelationships has a powerful abstract visual effect. Each stands on its own as an object of contemplation. Together, the story they relate--the emergence of the first black republic in the west--is an epic narrative about human aspirations, particularly that of black people," she concluded. (left: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), Flotilla, 1996, screenprint, 18 3/8 x 28 7/8 inches. Napoléon's troops under LeClerc arrive at the shores of Haiti)

The Toussaint L 'Ouverture series is on loan from The Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, which also owns the original paintings.

Jacob Lawrence and Expressions of Freedom also includes contemporary Haitian paintings from the collections of the Wadsworth Atheneum and The Amistad Foundation, as well as related photographs and prints belonging to The Amistad Foundation.


About the Artist:

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. He spent his early childhood in Easton and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but at age 13 moved to Harlem with his mother and siblings. He received his training at community art centers in Harlem, the easel project of the Works Progress Administration, and the American Artists School in New York. (left: Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), The Burning, 1997, screenprint, 18 3/4 x 29 inches. Henri Christoph, rather than surrender to LeClerc, sets fire to La Cape. Christoph, one of Toussaint's aides, sent word that the French were in Haitian waters -- that her had held them off as long as he could. He did not want them "to have the pleasure" of what the Blacks had set up)

His works are in the permanent collections of the nation's leading museums. In the Northeast alone these include the Museum of Modem Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum; and Wadsworth Atheneum.

The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of Lawrence's work in 1974. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983. Among the many other awards he has received are the National Medal of Arts (1990) and honorary doctorates from Yale (1986) and Harvard (1995).

Read more about the Wadsworth Atheneum in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/8/10

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