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Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” is a Masterpiece of American History

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., presents “People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series" documenting a major chapter in American history.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork: Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 15: “Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Over a period of six decades, more than six million African Americans moved from fourteen states in the South, seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the Northeast, Midwest, and West parts of the country. The first wave of the Great Migration occurred between 1910-1930, as about 1.6 million people left rural areas and moved to industrial cities in search of work.

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The Great Migration was one of the largest, most rapid movements in history. Spurned on by acts of homegrown terrorism including lynching, murder, and church burnings, as well as apartheid under Jim Crow laws, African Americans became refugees in their own country.

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 22: “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.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12″ (45.7 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 22: “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.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Harlem was a beacon to many who headed north, a vast neighborhood in Manhattan that became an economic, political, and cultural powerhouse. The Great Migration gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance, sparking the first major African American movement in the arts. Musicians, singers, dancers, actors, authors, playwrights, poets, painters, and photographers flourished in New York, redefining fine art and popular culture at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), one of the greatest American painters to live, was just 23 years old when he completed The Migration Series, a collection of 60 tempera paintings that captured the African American experience, first published alongside text captions a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine. Within months of its completion, the series was divided, with the even-numbered panels going into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the odd-numbered panels going to the Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 58: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12″ (45.7 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 58: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

After more than seven decades apart, the work was finally reunited so that the story could be told in full in People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, on view at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., now through January 8, 2017. The exhibition, which originated at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, last year is accompanied by a catalogue of the same name (The Museum of Modern Art/The Phillips Collection).

Lawrence was inspired to create The Migration Series as an active member of the Harlem Renaissance. In the catalogue, he reveals, “During the ‘30s there was much interest in black history and the social political issues of the day—this was especially true at 306 [a group of artists who met at 306 West 141 Street in Harlem]. It became a gathering place…I received not only an experience in the plastic arts—but came in contact with older blacks from the theater, dance, literary, and other fields. At sixteen it was quite a learning experience—Katherine Dunham, Aaron Douglas, Leigh Whipper, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alain Locke, William Attaway, O. Richard Reid—hearing them discuss the topics of the day—as well as philosophy and creative processes pertaining to their own fields.”

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 52: “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.” 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12″ (45.7 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 52: “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.” 1941. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

As a young man coming of age, Lawrence had the wherewithal to go the distance. The Migration Series provides cultural and political context for the story being told, highlighting issues that continue to plague the country in the new millennium. Rather than heroicize or romanticize this tremendous movement in American history, Lawrence allows fact to speak for itself. Through these scenes of daily life, we witness the stark, harsh, painful brutality of the effects of systemic racism on the very people who built this country. It is harrowing to consider the ways in which the past continues to play out on the national stage, whether we look at Flint, Baton Rouge, or Ferguson.

What makes The Migration Series so remarkable is the way in which Lawrence chose the relatable, making art for the people while speaking from the soul. Lawrence is a poet-painter, able to stroke in tempera on board the truth about daily life for African-Americans in a world full of slander and lies. Though the issues Lawrence raises are far from resolved, The Migration Series reminds us of the power of art to transform and deepen our understanding of life on earth. How prescient Lawrence was to know that the moments he memorialized speak to us still, for all too many of these injustices are perpetrated with impunity today.

Jacob Lawrence. Bus. 1941. Gouache on paper, 18 5/16 x 21 7/8” (47.8 x 55.6 cm). Collection of George Wein, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jacob Lawrence. Bus. 1941. Gouache on paper, 18 5/16 x 21 7/8” (47.8 x 55.6 cm). Collection of George Wein, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.