Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem,Mass., through April 24

Rarely do museum exhibitions offer so much reason for celebration, said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. “The American Struggle” is a national treasure— “a work of sustained brilliance by one of America’s finest artists”— and yet the public has had no chance to see it since 1956. Painter Jacob Lawrence conceived of the project when he was the most celebrated African-American artist in the country, and even so, the finished series “testifies to a level of ambition that still astounds.” Determined to tell the story of America’s founding in art, the New York–based visionary spent several years on research before producing 30 small panels that express a conception of history that was ahead of its time. To Lawrence, the founding was a violent multi party struggle, with a fight to end slavery at its center. In his visual account of the years 1775 to 1817, “everything feels bitterly connected.”

These paintings “may well challenge viewers accustomed to the artist’s easily readable ‘Migration Series,’ from 1940–41,” said Nancy Kenney in The Art Newspaper. Figures sometimes merge with the flattened and fragmented cubist backgrounds. Yet “throughout, Lawrence conveys a sense of agitation, as if the nation was struggling to make good on its professed credo of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” In Lawrence’s version of events, “irony abounds,” said Keith Powers in WickedLocal.com. The very first panel takes its title from a passage in a Patrick Henry speech: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” But the figures who crowd the frame with raised fists and raised bayonets could be black or white, inviting questions about Henry’s moral vision and whom it benefits.

For me, the power of Lawrence’s historical vision was no surprise, said Murray Whyte in The Boston Globe. But in “Struggle,” the vastness of his ambition was matched by his artistic prowess. “His colors seethe and burn; his scenes are dense knots of form and action.” Of the series’ 30 original paintings, 23 are included here, joined by five reproductions that will also travel with the exhibition as it moves around the country. Seeing most of them again in one place offers a welcome chance to absorb Lawrence’s view, in which U.S. history is not a contest between black and white, or a great men’s pageant, but a messy melee in which Native Americans, soldiers, slaves, farmers—all of us—have a shared stake. “It’s time to stop thinking of Lawrence as a great African-American artist and embrace him for the great American artist he was.”