Acclaimed artist Jacob Lawrence has an extensive collection of paintings spanning decades. He’s known for his narrative works, which have depicted various topics such as the Hiroshima bombing and Harriet Tubman. One of his first series is focused on the Great Migration — a 60-year period when Black people from the South flocked to the North in droves. They fled violence, low wages and unyielding Jim Crow laws.
“The story that Jacob Lawrence told in 1941 is just that. It’s about the conditions that were so deplorable that sent people out of the South,” Seattle Art Museum’s American art curator Patti Junker said. “It was about families getting disrupted. It was about despair and deprivation and all of those things.”
Originally titled “The Migration of the Negro,” Lawrence's series tells the story of the relocation of Black people between WWI and WWII. Sixty individual works of art make up the paintings, which are now simply called the “Migration Series.” Each 12-by-18-inch numbered panel tells a different part of the complicated migration story — why people fled and what awaited them in the new land. Lynchings, race riots and finally being able to vote are a part of the narrative.
The series begins with a crowded train station showing three destinations: Chicago, New York and St. Louis. Each entrance is packed with people carrying suitcases as they begin their journey. In the sea of brown bodies, green and red coats stand out. The caption reads “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans.” Lawrence uses simple abstract images to convey his message.
Artist Barbara Earl Thomas considers Lawrence a stellar American painter. She explained why Migration is a notable piece of art.
“He tells the story that is shared by our entire culture, so they’ll have insight into an important aspect of our history that they might not have had,” Thomas said. “His manner of telling that story allows you to see what an incredible artist he was because the subject matter and his manner of presenting it are so compatible.”
“Migration Series” is set to go on display January 21 at Seattle Art Museum in the eponymous gallery. The series doesn’t travel often, and this is the first time it’s being shown in entirety in Seattle. Junker said the panels won’t be spread out.
“We wanted you to have the full visual impact of seeing all the pictures together and the relationships. The patterns, the colors, the scale,” Junker said. “The fact that it does look like a mural when it’s hung that way, that was important not to break it up.”
Lawrence created the series in 1941 while he was working as a professional painter in the easel division in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Junker said Lawrence wrote the captions first after researching the topic then he created the panels using egg tempera.
“He’s working on all of them at the same time. So he paints all the grays, and he paints all of the yellows and all of the greens, so that there’s an overall look,” Junker said. “There’s this kind of visual rhythm to the whole series.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Lawrence’s birthday. He spent much of his adult life on the East Coast but later relocated to Seattle. In 1971 he became a tenured professor at the University of Washington. While there he impacted the lives of many students including Thomas.
“It’s not always the case that someone is a great artist and also an incredibly generous and excellent teacher,” Thomas said. “He loved teaching, so I think that those of us who had the good fortune to work with him were the recipients of what was the best about someone who loved teaching.”
Lawrence created “Migration Series” 75 years ago but its theme is enduring. Immigration is just as politically charged today as it was then.
“The subject matter is so timeless that when I saw it, I stopped thinking about it as a story about the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north,” Junker said. “If you look at it, you think you could be looking at works of art that encompass current events from anywhere in the world. You could be looking at events that are ripped from the headlines.”
Migration ends with a return to the original train station. The caption reads “and the migrants kept coming.”
SAM is offering free admission to the entire museum during opening weekend of the show, January 20-22. "Migration Series" will be on display until April 23, 2017.