at the Hirshhorn

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series

'Must-see' exhibition reunites 60-panel masterpiece, celebrates 20th Century American Master

The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 3, 1940-1941; In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry.

DC. SEPT 2016. Between World War I and World War II, there was mass exodus of more than a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. This Great Migration, fueled by wartime labor shortages in the North and oppressive conditions in the South, resulted in the largest population shift of African Americans since the time of slavery.

This major development received little public attention. That was, until 'one of America's leading modern figurative painters,' brushed the migration experience into a powerful expression of the human condition.

Now, all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence's, masterwork, will be on display at The Phillips Collection in People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.


The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 17, 1940-1941; The migration was spurred on by the treatment of the tenant farmers by the planter.

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE opens at The Phillips, October 8th

"In panel 60 of The Migration Series, Lawrence leaves us with the message, ‘And the migrants keep coming," said curator Elsa Smithgall. “During a time when record numbers of migrants are uprooting themselves in search of a better life, Lawrence’s timeless tale and its universal themes of struggle and freedom continue to strike a chord not only in our American experience but also in the international experience of migration around the world.”



Reuniting 30 panels owned by the Phillips with 30 panels on loan from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Lawrence’s complete The Migration Series (1940–41) will be on display beginning October 8, 2016 - January 8, 2017. This 'must-see' 2016 exhibition builds on the museum’s rich and meaningful history with the artist.


Website Launch

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Phillips will launch a dynamic interactive website on October 2 that will engage audiences with the historic and contemporary implications of migration. Special features include never-before-published video interviews with Jacob Lawrence as well as multiple perspectives from artists and scholars across disciplines.

The website invites users to add their voices to the dialogue by offering their own visions for a 61st panel in the series or creating poems using words from prominent Harlem Renaissance poets.


The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 9, 1940-1941; Another great ravager of the crops was the boll weevil.

The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 11, 1940-1941; In many places, because of the war, food had doubled in price.


The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 57, 1940-1941; The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942 © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Originally called The Migration of the Negro, Lawrence was just 23-years old when his powerful visual epic catapulted him to national acclaim. Integrating text and image, He created his epic statement in poetic cadences of simple shapes and colors as well as recurring symbols of movement: the train, the station, and people traveling. From lynching in the South to the bombing of African American homes in the North, Lawrence’s panels delve deeply into the struggles of people in search of greater economic, social, and political freedom.

New York art dealer Edith Halpert arranged for The Migration Series to be published in Fortune in November 1941, and exhibited at her Downtown Gallery. In 1942, museum founder, Duncan Phillips expressed great enthusiasm for the series upon seeing it at the Downtown Gallery. That year, Phillips gave Lawrence his first solo exhibition and purchased the odd-numbered panels. The even-numbered panels were purchased by MOMA.


In the following decades, Lawrence continued to create paintings drawn from the African American experience as well as historical and contemporary themes, such as war, religion, and civil rights. Later in life, he deemed The Migration Series, the “creative highlight” of his career..


The Phillips has remained deeply committed to sharing and expanding Lawrence’s legacy and achievements with broad and diverse audiences. Enriched by a close relationship with the artist during his lifetime, The Phillips Collection has for the last 25 years played a leadership role in the study, presentation, and teaching of Jacob Lawrence’s important contribution to the history of modern art.


A series of special events inspired by Lawrence’s masterwork will commemorate the artist’s legacy.


VISUAL ART To explore contemporary artistic views on migration, the Phillips is collaborating with Busboys and Poets on a juried call for Panel 61 art submissions responding to the question, “What would the 61st panel of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series look like today?” Selected submissions from artists will be displayed this fall in all six Busboys and Poets locations in the DC area.

CONVERSATION On September 16, the Phillips will partner with The Potter’s House for conversation about the themes that exist in The Migration Series and that remain relevant today. This event will also provide an opportunity to get a glimpse of the new website ahead of launch.


COMMEMORATIVE WALK Ahead of the Lantern Walk to be presented this fall by the 11th Street Bridge Project and Washington Performing Arts, the Phillips recently worked with Step Afrika! Summer Camp students during a workshop for making lanterns inspired by Lawrence’s Migration Series. The event remembers the African American families who once built their homes by candlelight in the historic Barry Farm and Hillsdale neighborhoods east of Anacostia River. In the weeks leading up to the community event and in association with Washington Performing Arts and Ward 8 Arts & Culture Council, the Phillips will continue to engage with high school students from Wards 7 and 8 on painting projects inspired by Lawrence’s series and the history of southeast DC. The commemorative walk will take place on September 17 between The Yards Park and Anacostia Arts Center.


STEP AFRIKA! On September 18, Step Afrika! will perform excerpts from the dance company’s signature work The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence at the Phillips. For this performance, Step Africa! blends body percussion, choreography, spoken word, projected images of Lawrence’s panels, and music. Before the preview performance, creative leaders from Step Afrika!, The Phillips Collection, and Washington Performing Arts will participate in a panel discussion.


THEATRE While the exhibition is on view, plays commissioned by the Phillips and inspired by Lawrence’s Migration Series will be debuted and read on October 20. This will include five 10-minute plays written by five local playwrights: Norman Allen, Tearrance Chisholm, Annalisa Dias, Jacqueline E. Lawton, and Laura Shamas. The production team for each play includes Lawton as Artistic Director, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe as Dramaturg, and Derek Goldman as Director. There will be an additional performance of the staged readings during the museum’s Phillips after 5 event on November 3.


POETRY On November 17, the Phillips will host a poetry reading in partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library. Poets Tyehimba Jess and Robin Coste Lewis will read poems directly inspired by and written in response to The Migration Series.


MUSIC To further celebrate the significance of Lawrence’s artwork, the University of Maryland (UMD) will host at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center a special performance of Derek Bermel’s musical score Migration Series. The UMD School of Music concert will feature the Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Band, Chamber Singers, and Wind Orchestra on Fri., December 2.


2017: The Migration Series heads west...



"Jacob Lawrence was one of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience."

- The New York Times, 2000


JACOB LAWRENCE by Carl Van Vechten, 1964,Transfers from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015) SAAM.


Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000) is among the best-known 20th century African American painters, a distinction shared with Romare Bearden.

Throughout the 1930s, his art was inspired by the cultural visionaries of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1938, he had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and started working for the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1940, he received a grant from the Rosenwald Fund to create a 60-panel epic, The Migration of the Negro.

He was in his twenties when his Migration Series made him nationally famous. After two solo exhibitions in Manhattan, he became the first black artist represented by a major commerical art gallery and the most celebrated African American painter the country.

Throughout his lengthy artistic career, Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans and important periods in history.

He was twenty-one years old when his series of paintings of the Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture were shown in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This impressive work was followed by a series of paintings of the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series of pieces about the abolitionist John Brown.

Throughout his lifetime, Lawrence received many honors including the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990. His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums and in the White House.

In 2012, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquired his The Legend of John Brown graphic series. The 1977 series, in vibrant color, powerful graphic imagery, and true Lawrence form, explored a critical moment in American history.

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