Jacob Lawrence’s 30-Panel American History ‘Struggle’ Series Reunited for First Time at Peabody Essex Museum

REBELLIOUS, DEMOCRATIC, AND COMPLEX. That’s how trailblazing artist Jacob Lawrence saw America.

Before he ever put paintbrush to panel, Lawrence spent five years conducting research for what would become one of his most ambitious bodies of work, Struggle: From the History of the American People. This 30-panel narrative epic told a version of American history that was more complete—and more complex—than had been previously known or told. His project celebrated not just the victors and their triumphs, but also the messy reality and lesser-known incidents and people that contributed to America’s founding and struggle for democracy.

Original research was essential to Lawrence’s process and he spent countless hours at the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, a special collection area at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem (today known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). He pored over historical texts that included first-person accounts, coded messages, and letters from a diverse array of historical players including women, Native Americans, and black people.

In 1954, just as the modern Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, Lawrence began to paint. The resulting works are reunited for the first time in over 60 years and are now on view in “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” an exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., that will make a five-stop national tour through 2021.

The paintings, alongside works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas, resonate with America’s ongoing pursuit of democracy, justice, truth, and inclusion—struggles which are as urgent today as they were in Lawrence’s time.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is on view at PEM from Jan. 18-April 26, 2020. Follow along and share your impressions using #AmericanStruggle

 

This post is sponsored by the Peabody Essex Museum

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “… is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? — Patrick Henry, 1775,” Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (Egg tempera on hardboard). | Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! — petition of many slaves, 1773,” Panel 5, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (Egg tempera on hardboard). | Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton…the night was excessively severe…which the men bore without the least murmur… —Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776,” Panel 10, 1954, from Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–56 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Metropolitan Museum of Art. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility… — 17 September 1787,” Panel 15, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (egg tempera on hardboard). | Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 


JACOB LAWRENCE, “Listen, Father! The Americans have not yet defeated us by land; neither are we sure they have done so by water—we therefore wish to remain here and fight our enemy… — Tecumseh to the British, Tippecanoe, 1811,” Panel 21, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM

 

IMAGE: Top left, Artist Jacob Lawrence with Panels 26 and 27 from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. | Photo by Robert W. Kelley, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images