SALEM – Six months ago, the debut of “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, was a milestone moment. It marked the first time the monumental series of paintings by Lawrence, the most widely known and influential Black American artist of the 20th century, had been seen together since its first showing 65 years ago.
Between 1954 and 1956, a tumultuous time during the Cold War, McCarthyism and the early years of the modern Civil Rights movement, Lawrence created 30 strikingly bold, luminous paintings that broaden the familiar narrative of the nation’s foundational decades by placing front and center Black people, Native Americans, women and others whose stories were ignored in American history.
The opportunity to see the much-anticipated and highly acclaimed exhibit was cut short in mid-March, when the museum shut down due to the pandemic.
Now, with the reopening of PEM on a limited basis, from Thursdays through Sundays, this timely and compelling show has been extended through Aug. 9. It will then move to a national tour that includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Of the original, 25 panels are accounted for, while the location of five remains unknown. The PEM exhibit includes reproductions of the missing paintings along with several that are too fragile to travel. PEM’s show adds a contemporary perspective with compelling work by artists Hank Willis Thomas, Bethany Collins and Derrick Adams.
While modest in scale – each panel measures 12×16 inches – the tightly composed paintings are forceful and dynamic, captivating viewers with energy and angular, sharp points. Working with egg tempera, Lawrence achieved highly saturated color in a style on the edge between figurative and abstract.
Each panel is paired with text from historical documents and first-person accounts that Lawrence gathered in five years of intensive research at the reading room at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
At the entry point of the exhibit, Panel 2 (1954), “Massacre in Boston,” depicts the historic figure of Crispus Attucks, the fugitive slave who was murdered in 1770 by British soldiers, crouched in the forefront, clutching his chest and bleeding.
Lawrence’s visionary series is riveting and timely at a moment when the country grapples with its enduring history of racial inequality.
“To look at Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Struggle’ series in our world today and engage with themes of democracy, justice, truth and inclusion, I feel this call to action in more depth, in new light, and in new urgency,” PEM associate curator Lydia Gordon said in an email.
Gordon joined the curatorial team of Elizabeth Hutton Turner and Austen Barron Bailly, who edited the nearly 200-page companion catalog that includes annotated full-color images of each of the panels along with essays and other material.
Early in Lawrence’s career, two Jewish connections were pivotal to Lawrence as he emerged as a New York City artist, one through the support of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a philanthropy established by the Jewish owner of Sears; and the other, through his professional relationship with Edith Halpert, a pioneering woman in the American art world who featured Lawrence’s work at her Downtown Gallery.
In 1940-41, Lawrence was a Rosenwald fellow, which provided him financial support to develop Migration, his series that traced the arduous journey of Blacks from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities.
The fellowship made it possible for Lawrence to rent studio space large enough to work on all of the paintings in one place, according to Norman H. Finkelstein, the Framingham-based biographer and author of “Schools of Hope: How Julius Rosenwald Helped Change African American Education.”
“The art is incredible,” said Finkelstein, a two-time National Jewish book award recipient, who saw the PEM exhibit when it opened. He was struck by Lawrence’s deep dive into research. “Every painting is steeped in actual history.”
“Edith Halpert was very instrumental in Jacob Lawrence’s career and his journey as an American artist,” PEM curator Gordon told the Journal in a conversation at the exhibit in late January. Halpert began representing him when he was in his early twenties.
Halpert, a Russian-born Jewish immigrant who died in 1970, was the subject of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York last winter that included several of Lawrence’s paintings from the Migration series.
Halpert saw meaningful links between the images Lawrence was depicting in Migration and the experience of Jewish immigrants, Gordon observed. Through Halpert’s efforts, the Migration series was published in Fortune magazine, sparking the interest of MOMA and the Philips Collection.
Jacob Lawrence became the first Black artist in MOMA’s collection in 1942, she pointed out.
It was Rosenwald’s daughter, Adele Rosenwald Levy, who donated the funds for MOMA to acquire half of the Migration series, Finkelstein learned.
As he researched, Lawrence wrote that the Struggle series project evolved from one that told the story of African Americans to the story of the American people.
His goal was to “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.”
More information and a virtual tour of the exhibit is featured on the museum’s website at pem.org.