Jacob Lawrence’s paintings and prints depict African American history and contemporary culture by combining social realism with modernist silhouetted forms and bold colors. Printmaking, which the artist turned to later in his career, suited his narrative style and provided an opportunity to reach a broader audience. His 1940s landmark 60-panel Migration Series documented the great African American migration to the North between the 1920s and the 1940s. In this work, Lawrence focuses on the vibrancy of Harlem, the epicenter of African American culture from the 1920s-1940s, celebrated in what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. In Harlem Street Scene, sometimes called People in Other Rooms, Lawrence captures a vibrant, multi-generational urban street-life scene with its vital sense of community.
Like so many African Americans of the WWI-Era “Great Migration” north, Lawrence’s parents left the South and settled in New Jersey, where he was born in 1917. After his parents separated, he moved with his mother to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood where he developed an interest in drawing and making diorama-type paintings. There he studied the work of Harlem Renaissance artists such as Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and Henry Bannarn. During the Depression, Lawrence had to drop out of high school and work to help support his family. He later joined the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) easel project, and in 1937 received a scholarship to the American Artists School in New York. In 1943, Lawrence joined the U.S. Coast Guard, and after his discharge in 1945, he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. After teaching in many locations, Lawrence accepted a tenured faculty position at University of Washington, Seattle in 1971 and taught there until 1986. He was awarded eighteen honorary university degrees and received the prestigious U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 1974, as did the Seattle Art Museum in 1986.
Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), Harlem Street Scene, 1975, screenprint, 24 ½ × 18 ½ inches. Gift of Sonya S. and Richard P. Tatar, 65-1992.