Saginaw Art Museum

Saginaw, Michigan

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The Legend of John Brown by Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence, Those Pro-slavery Were Murdered by Those Anti-slavery, 1977, serigraph on paper, 78.34.10, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Davis (click on thumbnail image to enlarge)


The Saginaw Art Museum presented The Legend of John Brown by Jacob Lawrence in the Museum's first-floor center and dining room galleries from May 6 - 30, 1999. This series of 22 silkscreens, created by Lawrence from his original paintings, were on loan to the Saginaw Art Museum from the Flint Institute of Arts.

John Brown was born May 9, 1800 to a strictly Calvinist family. He believed that he was ordained by God to overthrow slavery in America. Throughout his life, he attempted business ventures to raise money for his cause. All of them failed and though he accepted his poverty, he never abandoned his mission. He rallied the support of sympathizers and developed plans to violently defend fugitive slaves and attack those who were pro-slavery.

In 1854, Brown joined the fight in Kansas by free-state settlers attempting to keep Kansas slavery free. Brown led several successful raids, but when one of his sons was killed in battle, he set his resolve on completing a larger, more decisive coup intended to bring about the complete downfall of the South.

On Sunday, October 12, 1859, Brown and 21 men set out for Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Taking the town by complete surprise, they managed to hold it for 12 hours. On October 17, his place of retreat was discovered and taken by government forces. John Brown was found guilty of treason and first-degree murder and was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) on December 2, 1859.

Brown was a controversial figure in his lifetime, and remains so today. His single-mindedness, and the violence of his methods, were hailed as both heroic and insane. Though the raid on Harper's Ferry failed, Brown's actions, and his death, helped to instigate the Civil War, which ultimately achieved his goal. Brown predicted as much in a note written the day of his execution: "Charlestown, Va., 2d. December 1859. 1 John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away: but with Blood. I had as I now think; vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done."

Jacob Lawrence began his artistic career at age 13 when his mother enrolled him in an after school arts & crafts program. His artistic style was evident even then. He showed an innate understanding of pattern, shape, and color. However, it was not until his early twenties, in the middle of the Great Depression, that he found subjects worthy of the kind of narratives he wished to create. Through his involvement with the WPA (Works Progress Administration), he was free to explore his art. Furthermore, Lawrence was surrounded by other creative and intellectual people who piqued his interest in the history of black people in the Americas.

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence created a series of paintings on John Brown. Unlike other artists who had portrayed Brown, Lawrence's paintings are the only depiction of the abolitionist's history in serial form. Also, he creates an heroic figure without ignoring the bloody outcome of Brown's chosen path. The Legend of John Brown is one of many series created by Lawrence depicting African-American history. Other series include: Toussaint L 'Ouverture; Harriet Tubman; and, Frederick Douglass.

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rev. 10/18/10

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