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Jacob Lawrence at the DMA: Bold Colors and Big Questions

by Jerome Weeks 2 Dec 2009 4:26 PM

Toward the end of his life, artist Jacob Lawrence returned to the first series of paintings he ever did — on the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture — and the Dallas Museum of Art is exhibiting them all


generalmedIn a small gallery, the Dallas Museum of Art has put up 15 bold, colorful prints made by master artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). On loan from collector Curtis E. Ransom, Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture displays the artist’s signature use of historic narrative and bold colors. There are also dense layers of art and political history here — not simply because the prints come from one of Lawrence’s noteworthy, biographical series about heroic African-Americans, including Frederick Douglass.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was a leader of the only successful slave revolt in the Western hemisphere. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, L’Ouverture, born a slave in Haiti, was instrumental in defeating French, Spanish and English forces. He abolished slavery and established a constitutional government. He was eventually trapped by Napoleon’s forces and died in prison in 1802, although Haiti became fully independent the next year.

Lawrence created his Toussaint set in 1938 when he was only 21 — the paintings were a landmark for the artist, getting him exhibited in the Baltimore Museum of Art for the first time. His big breakthrough came only two years later with the massive Migration of the Negro series. It brought him national attention partly because images of African-American life and history simply hadn’t appeared in schools or the media (Lawrence had to do his own extensive research at the New York Public Library).

So Toussaint represents Lawrence’s earliest effort at conveying the intersection of history and heroic African-American life through a lengthy set of narrative panels. (I’m surprised no one has tried to publish any of his series as graphic novels.)

But the series on display at the DMA is made of  silkscreens that Lawrence printed more than 50 years later. In his 70s, he returned to his early effort and re-worked 15 images from those 41 paintings. During her press tour Wednesday, DMA curator Roslyn Adele Walker mentioned that the prints differ from their original inspirations to varying degrees — some quite radically.

A pity we couldn’t see at least one of the originals to make such a comparison. This isn’t to knock what’s on display — it’s the first exhibition of Lawrence’s works at the DMA in nearly 25 years. As collector Curtis Ransom himself noted, there are only two other complete sets of these 15 prints. And they’re a handsome set; they pack a lot of vivid impact into a little space.

Obviously, a painting reveals more of an artist than a silkscreen print; his brushstroke and gestures make it more “personal.” The later series of prints, in effect, extends Lawrence’s lifelong impulse toward bright, flat shapes. It makes very evident the influence of Matisse and his cut-out collages on what Lawrence called his  “dynamic cubism.”

But more significantly: As a young African-American male, Lawrence responded exuberantly to Toussaint’s anti-European colonialism but also his French-Revolutionary ardor — and this was during the ’30s, one of the peaks of economic and political unrest in the 20th century. Surely, that response would be different from that of a much older man. The older Lawrence may look back with fond nostalgia toward his youthful idealism. But that look would also be informed by his having lived through the ’60s, an era that saw major civil rights advances — as well as race riots, the flameout of the Black Panthers’ dreams of revolution and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. (Paul Karlstrom suggests this possible change in attitude in passing in his essay in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence.)

For instance: Lawrence’s style was often both robust and reserved, vigorous yet almost geometric. One of the notable features of his original interpretation of L’Ouverture is that it doesn’t partake of social realism or overt ideological worship, both of which were extremely powerful forces in the ’30s. Yes, the overall treatment is sympathetic. Consider the martyr-like native figures in the work, To Preserve Their Freedom, one of whom echoes the famous, helpless, outstretched arms of Goya’s The Third of May.

But L’Ouverture himself is kept at a distance, an idol given little emotional detail.  The only direct portrait of him (top) is ambiguous, hardly the rousing icon of liberation one might expect. He looks appropriately proud but he’s kept in shadow, a face edging into pouty contempt. While military finery in the 18th century was all the fashion — as was male dandyism — knowing that L’Ouverture designed his own uniform makes one wonder about Lawrence’s choices here. Is this the hard-won peacocking of a former slave who forged his own heroic identity, his own country, his own army and government? Or is it the despotic self-assertion of a general who declared himself governor-for-life?

Or compare Lawrence’s work, The March, with that of the World War I British painter, C. R. W. Nevinson, Soldiers Returning to the Front :



More than 20 years separate these two works, and Nevinson, unlike Lawrence, had direct experience of warfare. Perhaps that’s why his Vorticist-inspired treatment is grimmer, with its lowering sky and grey-washed colors. But both paintings are very similar in the way their jagged, angular, diagonal lines convey the forward momentum of an infantry column, its implacable force and rhythm. And as strong an impression as this makes, the viewer is also struck by the inhuman facelessness of the men in both works (I was going to write “individuals” — but there are no individuals).

So: Is Lawrence’s The March a testament to L’Ouverture’s prowess and might in honing such an effective fighting force? Or does it reflect the inevitable, enforced dehumanization of warfare?

And in the case of both the portrait and The March, was the ambivalence in the original paintings? If we saw all 41 of the first series, would we gain the same overall feeling as we do from the 15 prints? Or did any of the ambiguities creep in with Lawrence’s age and experience?

For all of its limited scope and comparative simplicity — one series, one painter, one subject, one collection — the DMA exhibition dazzles viewers with Lawrence’s seemingly silent explosions of color — and leaves us with a number of tantalizing questions.

For those who wish to know more about Lawrence’s subject, I note that in March, Arts & Letters Live will present one of the more interesting experts on the subject: Novelist Madison Smartt Bell wrote an entire trilogy on Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution, All Souls Rising (the title is a translation of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s name).  Bell will be speaking with African-American art historian Samella Lewis March 4.

The rest of Arts & Letters Live’s new season will be announced Dec. 14, when tickets will also go on sale.

  • twf

    Of interest in learning about Toussaint — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at This short film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

  • Interesting, thanks for the info. You can see a clip from Last Days here. At the DMA, there is a video monitor displaying another short film on Toussaint, this one more of a documentary with recreated scenes and some of Lawrence’s prints. It was made in San Francisco, I believe, and isn’t on IMDB.

  • elf

    dr. samella lewis the scheduled lecturer for arts and letters live march 4th is ill and will be replaced with lou stovall artist/printer. he was the printer for jacob lawrence’s toussaint series