Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The American Struggle’ Commits The Nameless To Canvas

Feb 26, 2020 / by Julia Barber / WBUR

An exhibition of painter Jacob Lawrence is a searing indictment of methodical erasures in our history, and a call to recommit to the democratic principles of liberty and justice for all.

“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” is the first museum exhibition of the artist’s tempera panels from his monumental 1954-56 series “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through April 26). Set alongside contemporary works by Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, and Bethany Collins, Lawrence’s work reads louder and truer than ever.

Lawrence’s subtle rewriting of classic tropes of American history makes room for women, black people and Native Americans, whose contributions to the fight for freedom are rarely given their due. For Lawrence, rather than the traditional parade of great white men, national glory rested instead on the shoulders of thousands of nameless foot soldiers, diplomats, laborers, cooks and cleaners, as well as the involuntarily displaced and exploited indigenous population: an anonymous grouping of unsung heroes.

Lawrence broke the human figure down into its composite shapes, reducing gradations of shade and hue to pure, saturated colors with minimal modeling. He mixed his own paints, ensuring color consistency throughout a series by applying one color at a time to each panel in the series before moving on to the next. Visible brushstrokes and clashing, forceful lines imbue Lawrence’s work with frenetic energy.

“Struggle” turns textbook tropes on their heads: one panel shows the iconic scene of Washington crossing the Delaware, but from an inverted perspective. The painting upends the familiar image of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, where a dramatic composition highlights Washington’s profile as he stands aloft in the tiny boat, stoically leading his men into unknown territory.

No central figure emerges in Lawrence’s version: a cluster of men, huddled under blankets, spears held aloft, wait out the perilous journey, blood dripping from the hulls of their boats to signify the danger and sacrifice inherent in their mission. It’s a behind the scenes look at one of the fundamental legends of American history, drawing back the curtain to reveal those who made the legend possible.

Lawrence wrote that his aim for the series was to “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” His panels align the trials and achievements of marginalized Americans with well-known stories of American history, subtly eliciting an empathetic response from the viewer.