Don’t be sad that the Phillips Collection is lending its half of the paintings in Jacob Lawrence’s famed “Migration Series” to a Seattle museum through the end of April. The Phillips is temporarily filling the hole with Lawrence’s “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a series of 15 silk-screen prints that curator Elsa Smithgall calls “a lesser-known but equally important body of Lawrence’s work.”
Born in 1917 in New Jersey, the prolific African-American painter chronicled the black experience in the U.S. right up until his death in 2000.
Lawrence first discovered the history of L’Ouverture — the former slave who became the leader of Haiti’s struggle for independence in the 1790s — when he was 13. He was so fascinated by the story of the man who led the most successful slave revolt in the Americas that he started doing his own research.
“Having no Negro history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world,” Lawrence said in a speech in D.C. in 1940. “I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing.”
In 1938, when Lawrence was 20, he completed a series of 41 paintings showing important moments in L’Ouverture’s life. “The themes of struggle and the fight for freedom became the bedrock of his works,” Smithgall says.
Fifty years later, in 1986, after a fruitful career and breaking color barriers in the art world, Lawrence decided to revisit L’Ouverture. He looked at his original paintings, chose 15 of his favorites and hired D.C. master printmaker Lou Stovall to help him translate the paintings into silk-screen prints, which could be printed en masse and sent to all corners of the U.S., spreading knowledge about the history of the Haitian Revolution.
“Lawrence was always thinking about the educational value of his work,” Smithgall says. “This was a way to expose more people to his series and the history of L’Ouverture.”
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; through April 23, $12.
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