Growing up in Harlem
In the 1920s, Harlem became a coveted address. The neighborhood in New York City was synonymous with an outpouring of production in the visual arts, music, literature, theater, and dance that some began referring to the creative era as the Harlem Renaissance.
Jacob Lawrence moved to Harlem when he was 13 and grew up in this vibrant community. He took art classes at the Utopia House and the Harlem Workshop while carefully observing the activity and rhythm's of Harlem’s daily life.
Lawrence grew up among some of the most well-known African American thinkers during the Harlem Renaissance. He lived in the same building as the poet Claude McKay and attended the Apollo Theater where he recalled viewing performances in which “everything was jagged, bright, and brittle...so maybe my color and my shapes have this quality and developed out of that experience.”
In the classroom activities below, students will identify and compare the different influences from the Harlem Renaissance on Jacob Lawrence’s work.
Apollo Theater Playbill
Frank Schiffman Apollo Theater Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers
Art and Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Oil on canvas, 1934
This is Harlem
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966. © 2006 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Gouache on paper, 1943
In the Classroom: Mural Painting Activity
Jacob Lawrence spent a lot of time at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library conducting research and taking art classes. This is also where Lawrence encountered Aaron Douglas’s four-panel mural Aspects of Negro Life (above).
Douglas was a painter of his community’s history, and he inspired Lawrence to become a contemporary African American storyteller. Lawrence was also influenced by Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
Compare the similarities between the narratives in Douglas’s painting and Lawrence’s Migration Series. Ask students to synthesize their knowledge of Douglas and Lawrence’s artistic styles and combine it with their own style to create a mural that tells a story about their community. This can be an individual, group, or class project.
In the Classroom: Compare and Contrast Activity
Alain LeRoy Locke was the Harlem Renaissance’s foremost philosopher and thinker. A professor at Harvard University, Locke passionately believed African American artists should distinguish themselves by tapping into their African heritage, folk traditions, and communities as sources of inspiration.
Locke’s writings and ideas reinforced Lawrence’s enthusiasm for African American culture and the street of Harlem as a subject matter.
Ask students to read Locke’s essay, Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro and then look closely at Lawrence’s painting, This is Harlem (above).
Compare and contrast how Locke and Lawrence portray Harlem through their different mediums. What are the similarities and differences? How did Locke influence Lawrence?
Students can also read the essay again and make note of when Locke refers to “waves” and “crests” to describe the Great Migration. Identify which panels portray waves of migrants moving to the north. How does Lawrence use imagery of waves of people in The Migration Series?