Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence
Equity Gallery was made possible through the generosity of Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000
A painter, printmaker, educator and social justice advocate, Jacob Lawrence is famed for his work and passions in and outside of art. Continually making art throughout his lifetime, Lawrence was first introduced to the avenues of expression through art in his early teenage years after he moved to Harlem to live with his then single mother. He attended art after-school programs at both Utopia House and Harlem Art Workshop. He studied directly under Charles Altson (and met his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence at Alston’s studio), all while picking up the rhythms and quirks of the Harlem Renaissance. His first extant paintings are of a very satirical nature, depicting the hardship of life in Harlem during the Great Depression.
In 1938, Lawrence had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and afterwards was employed by the Works Progress Administration. He began to paint in series, specifically of famous African American figures. In 1941, after being awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship for the second consecutive time, he completed his narrative series of sixty paintings, The Migration of the Negro. His career, already on the up, took off when the following year MoMA and the Phillips Collection purchased his work. From 1941-1953, Lawrence was represented by Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, making him the first African American to be represented by a major gallery, let alone whose work was bought by MoMA. During these years, Lawrence continued to be regularly shown at solo and group exhibitions at Halpert’s gallery, as well as the Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute, Art Institute of Chicago, Venice Biennale, Sao Paolo Bienal, and many other major art institutions.
Lawrence was one of the founding members of the New York Artists Equity Association (NYAEA), and served as a board member for multiple years, and as president in 1957-58. Celebrated for his honest depiction of societal issues and history, Lawrence continued with his style during a time of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Art critics and reviews from the New York Times and ArtDigest commended him on his loyalty to the truth and social justice. Romare Bearden, at NYAEA’s tribute to Lawrence at the opening of the Brooklyn Museum retrospective in 1987, noted, “With Jacob Lawrence, it was almost from the very beginning...certain that he would be recognized as a leading artist of his time. In those years when Jacob painted in hospital waiting rooms, in a pool room, or a mother and child simply doing a bit of laundry, one had the feeling that Jacob’s depiction was completely authentic.”
Later in Lawrence’s career, he devoted his time to creating prints and commissioned paintings. Most of the profits from the prints went directly towards non-profit organizations, helping people of all ages and backgrounds. Lawrence also devoted his time to teaching. He taught at Pratt, the New School, Art Student League, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Black Mountain College and University of Washington (Seattle).
Leading a vibrant, successful and meaningful career, Lawrence received many honors, including honorary degrees from eighteen universities, the National Medal of Arts, the Spingarn Medal, the Pratt Award, and the New York Artists Equity Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Visual Arts.
Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 1913-2005
A respected painter and sculptor, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence was known for her intimate portraits of friends and family. Painting throughout her travels through the United States and the world, Gwendolyn picked up influences from many places, including the American South and Nigeria. From her roots in Barbados, Knight Lawrence moved to Harlem at 13, immersed constantly in the music, arts and culture of the Harlem Renaissance. She attended Howard University for two years, studying painting, until the Great Depression started to spread. She then actively participated in Augusta Savage’s sculpture workshops, learning from Savage not only the tricks of the trade but also the way in which an artist could survive, let alone an African American woman artist. Savage introduced Knight Lawrence to many of the notables of the Harlem Renaissance, something that never left her mind and work.
In the 1930s, Knight Lawrence was employed by the Works Progress Administration, through the support of Savage. She also worked for Charles Alston for a few years. It was in his studio where she and Jacob Lawrence met in 1934. She helped Lawrence with the preparation for his painting series, The Migration of the Negro.
Constantly painting, Knight Lawrence was continually influenced by works of Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove. In addition, she continued her interest in dance. She taught informal dance lessons at Black Mountain College, and also studied with the New Dance Group. Dance moves through her work, in which the light, airy qualities of modern dance imbue her paintings and later etchings and monotypes.
From late 1960s onwards, Knight Lawrence’s work landed in the hands of major collectors and collections, such as MoMA, Hampton University, St. Louis Art Museum and Francine Seder’s gallery in Seattle. Not only was Knight Lawrence’s work evolving, but she began to create work much more prolifically. She was in many group and solo exhibitions all over the country, including at the Form Gallery, Tacoma Art Museum, DC Moore Gallery and the Seattle Art Museum.
While in Seattle, Knight Lawrence joined many forums and panels for the thriving art community. She also received numerous awards highlighting her successes in art and also in the community, such as the National Honor Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, Cornish Lifetime Achievement Award, Centennial Award of Merit from the Arizona State University, and much more.
After her husband passed away in 2000, Knight Lawrence focused more of her energy on philanthropy through the foundation in her and her husband’s name. There are numerous art and humanitarian awards that are given each year under their names.