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How Jacob Lawrence Painted a Radical History of the American Struggle

The Peabody Essex Museum is reuniting a series of paintings that explore the hidden stories of the nation’s formative years

Jacob Lawrence, . . .again the rebels rushed furiously on our men. — a Hessian soldier, Panel 8, 1954, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954-56 (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM)
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Between 1949 and 1954, Jacob Lawrence made countless trips from his home in Brooklyn to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, where he scoured history books, letters, military reports and other documents for hidden stories that had shaped American history. By this point in time, Lawrence was “the most celebrated African American painter in America,” having risen to fame in the 1940s with multiple acclaimed series depicting black historical figures, the Great Migration and everyday life in Harlem. In May 1954, just as the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public schools, the artist finally finished his research. He was ready to paint.

Lawrence ultimately crafted 30 panels depicting pivotal moments in the country’s nascent years of 1770 to 1817. His works, collectively titled Struggle: From the History of the American People, shifted the focus from celebrated figures to unseen historical players: African Americans, women, laborers, Native Americans. Now, for the first time in more than 60 years, the majority of these radical paintings will be reunited in an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

According to Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper, Lawrence’s series was purchased privately in 1959 and later sold off “piecemeal.” The whereabouts of five of the paintings are unknown, and several others were deemed too delicate to travel; they are represented at the Peabody by reproductions.

Jacob Lawrence War of 1812
Jacob Lawrence, Thousands of American citizens have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them: they have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation. — Madison, 1 June 1812, Panel 19, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954-56 (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Stephen Petegorsky)

Though the collection is incomplete, the new show offers a sweeping look at Lawrence’s remarkably human exploration of the country’s formative years.

“These are history paintings like you have never seen before,” says Lydia Gordon, PEM’s associate curator for exhibitions and research, in a museum blog post.

The series blends the boundaries between figuration and abstraction, and as its name suggests, struggle is a central theme. Lawrence’s scenes are angular and tension-filled, with thin lines of blood often dripping from characters. His interpretation of George Washington crossing the Delaware does not show the general standing majestically at the helm of a boat, as seen in Emanuel Leutze’s famed painting of the same subject. Instead, Lawrence’s preoccupation is with the nameless soldiers who fought and died for American independence. Here, these figures are shown huddled and cloaked, their bayonets jutting over the river like spikes.

Another one of Lawrence’s central concerns was the role of African Americans in the nation’s founding.

“[T]he part the Negro has played in all these events has been greatly overlooked,” he once said, as quoted by Sebastian Smee of the Washington Post. “I intend to bring it out.”

One panel depicts Patrick Henry’s famed 1775 call to arms against the British. The artwork is captioned with a line from Henry’s speech: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”

Patrick Henry
Jacob Lawrence, ...Is Life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? – Patrick Henry, 1775,, Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM)

Still, the Patriots’ fight against bondage failed to encompass the country’s actual enslaved individuals. Yet another panel in the series shows African Americans in the throes of revolt.

“We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!” reads the caption, which quotes a letter by Felix Holbrook, a slave who petitioned for emancipation in 1773.

Struggle also highlights the enslaved men, Creole people, and immigrants who fought with Governor Andrew Jackson in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans; the anonymous laborers who toiled to build the Erie Canal across New York state; and the contributions of Margaret Cochran Corbin, who followed her husband into the Revolutionary War and, when he was killed, took over firing his cannon. She became the first woman to receive a military pension—one that was “half the size of the men’s,” according to the museum. In Lawrence’s panel, Corbin is turned away from the viewer, a pistol tucked into the waistband of her dress.

The year he started painting Struggle, Lawrence explained that his objective for the series was to “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” He painted these works during the modern Civil Rights era, knowing the battle was still not finished. Today, says Gordon, Struggle continues to resonate.

“[Lawrence’s] art,” she adds, “has the power to encourage difficult conversations that we need to be having: What is the cost of democracy for all?”

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle”​ is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, through April 26.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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