Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle features the little-seen series of paintings—"Struggle: From the History of the American People" (1954–56)—by the iconic American modernist. The exhibition reunites the multi-paneled work for the first time in more than half a century.
Lawrence's "Struggle" was originally conceived as sixty 12-by-16-inch tempera paintings, spanning subjects from European colonization to World War I. It was intended to depict, in the artist's words, "the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy." He ultimately completed thirty panels representing historical moments from 1775 through 1817—from Patrick Henry's famous "liberty" speech to westward expansion.
Lawrence painted the series at the height of the Cold War and Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare, which also coincided with landmark Civil Rights actions, such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that called for the desegregation of public schools. These events deeply informed the artist's approach to the historical subjects.
In his ambitious portrayal of these episodes as inherently contested and diverse, Lawrence foregrounds the experiences of women and people of color. Most panels are accompanied by quotations from historical texts. This more inclusive representation of the nation's past is no less relevant today, and Lawrence's prescient visual reckoning with American history remains profoundly resonant with ongoing issues of racial justice and national identity.
In this companion publication to the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibition catalogue, a diversity of teens from across the country explore what it means to be American today in poetry, free verse, essays, and autobiographical writings. Learn more at Six Foot Press.
American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence is available for purchase at The Met Store.
"Who made America great when America began making itself? That question is at the heart of an exhibition of exquisite and harrowing paintings by Jacob Lawrence." —New Yorker
"'American Struggle' at the Met shows an artist searching out bits of the nation's history that have been edged out, and making visible the fight for racial equality." —New York Times
"We have never not been in struggle. The country conceived in conflict and combat, debate and divisiveness, remains so." —Apollo
"The focused attention of visitors attests that the timing of 'The American Struggle' at the Met, a happenstance result of the Covid-19 lockdown, could not be more apt." —Wall Street Journal
"'Struggle: From the History of the American People' charts the strife of early US history in a fierce Cubist/Expressionist style." —New York Review of Books
"Compared to the jigsaw pieces of 'Migration,' 'Struggle' presents an even more complex puzzle of compositional ingenuity." —New Criterion
The exhibition is made possible by the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
It is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.
In this 1968 interview, Lawrence discusses the importance of centering Black contributions to U.S. history.
Marquee: Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000). In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . . —Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803 (detail), 1956. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2020 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Portrait: Jacob Lawrence in 1957. Photo (detail) by Alfredo Valente. Image courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, Alfredo Valente Papers, 1941–78.