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Around the galleries

‘A visual ballad’: Jacob Lawrence’s African American vision

— June 2015

Associated media

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 3

The largest internal migration in US history explored in paint at MoMA, New York. Victoria Keller reports

The greatest internal migration the USA has ever known was the multi-decades long mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North.  Just after the beginning of the First World War in 1914, when labour shortages became evident in Northern industry, it's estimated that at least six million people began to make the trek, usually by train, from the southern states to northern cities, such as New York, Chicago and St Louis.  A steady stream of migrants in 1915 became a surge by 1916, receding somewhat after the Stock Market crash in 1939, rising again during and after the Second World War.  The largest demographic event in 20th-century America, it altered the social landscape forever.  In 1910, 90 per cent of African Americans lived in the southern USA.  By 1970, almost half of those people had moved north.

To mark the centennial of the beginning of the Great Migration, as it came to be known, The Museum of Modern Art is presenting  ‘One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North’.  The exhibition highlights the ways in which visual artists, writers and musicians of the time (from about the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s) offered perspectives on this crucial episode in American history. The showpiece of this exhibition is a narrative series of 60 small paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), each one 18x12ins (45.7x30.5cm), tempera on hardboard. 

Lawrence completed the ‘Migration Series’ in 1941, and exhibited it at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, becoming the first black artist to be represented by a New York gallery.  Within months, the series entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington DC (today the Phillips Collection).  One museum took the even numbers, the other took the odd numbers.  This exhibition is the first time in 20 years that the pictures have been shown together.

The pictures are in a central gallery, in numbered order, each with its own caption.  Lawrence, the child of migrants, born in New Jersey and raised in Harlem, spent months at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) studying historical documents, books, photographs, journals and other printed materials relating to the Great Migration, making sure he got his background material down correctly.  It is this material upon which the captions, and ultimately the paintings, are based.

Once he had written the captions, deciding on the subjects for the panels, he began.  Here are the captions of the three paintings illustrated here:

In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry.(Panel 3)

Another of the social causes of the migrants' leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night.  They were arrested on the slightest provocation.  (Panel 22)

In the North the Negro had better educational facilities. (Panel 58)

The images are deceptively simple and very earnest, with the elements pared down to the most basic of shapes, yet these are highly sophisticated compositions.  The three figures chained together; the three schoolgirls writing on a chalkboard; the pyramidal shape of those migrating, rising up towards the birds in flight. There is movement, but the effect is of a monumental stillness.  Colour is kept simple: the colours of Lawrence's childhood in Harlem.  The Australian art historian, Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, wrote ‘Migration is a visual ballad, each image a stanza – compressed, like the blues, to the minimum needs of narration’.  

Lawrence trained as a painter at the Harlem Art Workshop, which was inside the New York Public Library's 135th Street branch.  He also spent hours studying Italian Renaissance painting at the Metropolitan Museum.  His teacher Charles Alson encouraged him to explore the visual possibilities of abstract shapes and patterns, and his paintings do show a debt to Cubism as well as to Matisse. By the 1930s, when Jacob Lawrence was studying and beginning to paint, there were several strands to American art that would have affected an impressionable young artist. These were:  abstract (mostly confined to New York City – Stuart Davis is a good example),  realist (such as Edward Hopper) and  regionalist, for example Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.  The most important artists from outside the USA to have a major impact on the New York art world in the 1930s were  Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera. 

While Lawrence's captions are clearly of immense importance, it is the strength of the visual narration  that  allows these 60 small panels to hold the wall.  Moving between scenes of great intimacy and tenderness and scenes of terror and violence, this powerful group of works, first exhibited in 1941, showed a new way to represent black experience in America.


Victoria Keller
New York

Media credit: Phillips Collection, Washington DC Acquired 1942. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / ARS, NY. Photo courtesy Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Background info

'One-Way Ticket:  Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North'
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
On now until 7 September 2015

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