Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000)
Watercolor and gouache on paper
22 3/4 x 31 in. (57.8 x 78.7 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1946 (46.73.2)
© 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
While Lawrence's work was never oriented to overt political polemics, the painting exploredand called attention tothe most significant social issues in his community. Alain Locke described this stance in a formal letter of support written in 1940 for one of the artist's fellowship applications: "There is little or no hint of social propaganda in his pictures Yet his work has a stirring social and racial appeal." Along with portrayals of illness, religion, and spirituality, and the special plight of working women, Lawrence made a particular study of working-class labor.
Lawrence had just returned to New York from two years' service in the U.S. Coast Guard when he made this painting, and it marks the beginning of what would become a potent subject in his work throughout the rest of his life: the representation of manual labor by African Americans. The shoemaker's heroic scale dwarfs the tiny shoes aligned on the workbench and hung on the walls, and overwhelms the miniature-sized room in which he works. The whole scene is organized in a flat pattern of angular elements, all in saturated color. The cobbler's geometric, exaggerated shoulder line signals both strength and concentration of purpose. His gigantic handsoversized even in relation to his huge frameare central to conveying the story of his power and single-mindedness. So are the tools he works with. Lawrence was particularly drawn to tools throughout his career, for both their emblematic meaning and their physical properties: "It's a beautiful instrument, the tool, especially the hand-tool. We pick it up and it's so perfect, it's so utilitarian, so aesthetic, that we turn it, we look at it. I always think of the tool as an extension of the hand."