Reunited for the first time since 1958, the 30 panels—which are now on view at the Seattle Art Museum as Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle—trace the tumultuous, early beginnings of the United States, emphasizing the perspective and experiences of Black people in this country. Through Lawrence's iconic and bright modernist style, revolt, secrecy, murder, capture, war, the freezing cold, and slavery dramatically unspool throughout the galleries. Ruby red blood cuts down nearly every panel.
Lawrence is one of America's greatest historians and one of our most prolific storytellers. His Struggle series is a sweeping visual epic, covering the first several decades of American history—from the Boston Massacre to battle scenes from the War of 1812 to an imagined suppressed slave revolt in Georgia and North Carolina. It's an unflinching examination of how America became the violent behemoth as we know it, resonating with the political uprisings and sieges from this past year.
To visually craft these scenes, Lawrence did archival work at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now known as the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture). He pulled quotes from historical speeches, letters, coded messages, and documents to title and inform many pieces. Combined with his dense, Cubist form, taking in each of the 30 panels is almost like reading a novel.
What's so powerful about the series is its intent to depict a different perspective on moments in American history that have become mythologized. For example, take Emanuel Leutze's monumental 1851 painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River. In Leutze's rendition, Washington somewhat improbably stands up in the tiny boat, while his men deftly break up the ice around their flimsy vessel. There's nary a cold nose in sight as the heavens seem to open up above them. Their victory and goodness seem preordained.
But in Lawrence's version, pictured above, there's no God, no heaven, no ease. The colors and sharp lines depict a bone-chilling cold. The soldiers are barely visible underneath their blankets, a mass of huddled bodies with no apparent leader among them as their bayonets point toward the sky. Blood drips down the sides of their boats into choppy blue waters that heave and churn underneath them, a reminder of the hardship this moment represents.
While neither Leutze's nor Lawrence's interpretations of the historical event are necessarily more factual than the other, Lawrence gets at a different kind of truth in his depiction. America's persistence as a country and a project was not foretold. Rather, it was violently taken and sketched out, marked by slavery, genocide, war, and immense struggle experienced by those seeking their own freedom and those looking to impose their will on others. It's a point hammered out in the rest of the series.
The traveling exhibition, which is parked at SAM until May, is significant because it reunites two long lost panels with the rest of the series. I wrote about the recovery of Panel 16 last year, which resurfaced after an elderly couple in New York realized the true identity of the painting hanging in their apartment. The panel had not been seen since 1960, and its relocation seemed like a one-time occurrence.
That was until earlier last week, when a second long-missing panel from the series, Panel 28, was also recovered, also in the home of a New Yorker. The painting depicts a group of immigrants on their way to America. One holds a child to her breast, another prays, while a male figure grasps a giant blue vase holding a single rose—America's national flower. It's one of the series' few moments of reprieve, a quietly powerful depiction of the immigrant struggle that hung in someone's dining room for two decades. There are still three missing panels in the series, which, in this context, feels akin to missing pages in a history book.
The show also features contemporary works by Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, and Bethany Collins that speak to Lawrence's interest in democracy and American history. SAM also asked youth from the city to submit their interpretations of an imagined 31st panel of the Struggle series.
It's an exercise I extended to myself as I made my way back out of the show. I wondered how Lawrence would interpret some of the life-altering events I witnessed over the past year. How would he depict coronavirus ravaging our country, killing half a million Americans? Or the confrontations between protesters and police on 11th and Pine last summer? Or the hoards of violent Trump supporters raiding the Capitol building in January? Or the Black Georgians clenching victory for Democrats in the South? The answer is quite simple—through color, texture, value and line.