Large collection of works by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence is now housed at Stanford University
Lawrence was dedicated to telling the story of African Americans in the United States
By Rosemary Eng
Stanford, California— Our country’s history is not truly American unless the story of African Americans is interwoven in it, believed Jacob Lawrence, one of the most prolific and admired African-American artists.
Lawrence, who died in 2000 at age 83, documented in his boldly-colored, modernistic paintings, the northward migration of southern blacks, Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom following the North Star (Harriet and the Promised Land,1967), blacks at the neighborhood pool parlor (At Times It Is Hard to Get a Table in a Pool Room,1943), African Americans on construction teams, helping to build the nation — all insights into both the dramatic and the everyday lives of African Americans.
His work is a part of nearly 200 museum collections throughout the United States. Now 56 pieces of Lawrence’s works have been donated to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, as one of the largest assemblies of his paintings, drawings and prints in a museum.
While portions of this collection will be on exhibition at the Cantor art museum, most will be carefully conserved but made available for private viewing upon request by scholars, historians, and students of the complex black narrative, said Dr. Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The paint on some of the works on paper is starting to lift and flake off, she said, and because they are so fragile they cannot always be displayed.
Earlier this year Cantor had a special exhibition of its Lawrence collection. The exhibit catalog, Promised Land, the Art of Jacob Lawrence, quotes Lawrence as saying, “I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools…. I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro.”
Lawrence produced a series of silkscreens to tell The Legend of John Brown, a white man dedicated to the fight for the abolishment of slavery. In this series Brown is organizing his rebel group, there is violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions and Brown is strategizing how to take the U.S. government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859. In the end, Brown is hanged for “treason.”
A self-described storyteller, Lawrence shows Harriet Tubman following the North Star to carry slaves to freedom in his children’s book, Harriet and the Promised Land, 1968, a two-for-one in the telling of Tubman’s story and at the same time, a show of Lawrence’s artwork. The book is readily available on Amazon.
In Lawrence’s capture of African-American everyday life he made Two Rebels, 1967, a slumping black man being taken away by white police (not in the Cantor collection), and he illustrated the fervor of preachers sermonizing in the community church.
In time there may be videos and virtual programs to educate the public about Lawrence and his work. “This is just the beginning,” said Mitchell. For now, all of Lawrence’s work at the Cantor can be viewed on Cantor’s website at
This collection of works was a gift from the late Dr. Herbert J. Kayden of New York City and his daughter, Joelle Kayden of Washington, D.C., in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, Dr. Kayden’s wife and Joelle Kayden’s mother. Joelle Kayden is a graduate of Stanford. Mitchell said there was a friendship between Lawrence and the Kaydens who liked his work and collected it. The Kaydens were “people who collected from the heart,” and bought what they responded to.
Lawrence grew up in Harlem when Harlem was home to the largest African-American population in America. He went to after-school art classes, and became absorbed with art. He knew the significant artists and performers in the Harlem community, the politicians and the church leaders. He was a witness to African-American history.
He not only produced gallery work, he painted murals for the Harold Washington Center in Chicago, the University of Washington and Howard University and created a large mural for the Times Square subway station in New York City.
During his entire life, even while serving in the Navy, Lawrence produced art. He held teaching positions at universities. Before he retired he was professor of art at University of Washington in Seattle. According to the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center, Lawrence received the Presidential Medal of Arts and more than 18 honorary post-doctorate degrees in the last ten years of his life.
Once familiar with Lawrence’s art style and his pursuit of documenting the saga African Americans’ lives, you will start spotting Lawrence’s work in art museums throughout the country and piecing together the story he has told. One of Lawrence’s works is even in the White House. It’s a fun way to teach art and African American history to kids.