US painter and arts educator. A well known African-American Social Realist, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence is noted primarily for his dynamic paintings depicting African-American social issues and historical figures. Major themes include injustice, violence, and renderings of urban life. His paintings, characterized by flat patterns, movement, and expressive colour, often formed part of a series illustrating a particular African-American experience. The Migration Series (1941-42), for example, consists of 60 separate works based on the uprooting and mass migration of African-Americans from the south to the urban north.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence moved to Harlem, New York with his mother, sister, and brother in the 1920s, during what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. He studied art at the Harlem Art Workshop 1934-36, and won a scholarship to the American Artists School, New York 1937-39. Lawrence worked as an artist under the Federal Art Project, and in 1939 had his first solo exhibition. A Social Realist, he used his art to universalize the plight of the African-Americans. His multi-canvas series usually told the story of an African-American historical event or hero, such as the 30-panelled Harriet Tubman Series (1939-40) concerning the founder of the Underground Railroad (a network for escaped slaves). The distinctive flat surfaces of his paintings were created with gouache, an opaque watercolour, and tempera, a mixture of pigment and a binder.
Lawrence taught art at the Pratt Institute in New York 1958-65, and also at the University of Washington, Seattle, from 1970. In 1993 he wrote and illustrated Harriet and the Promised Land, a children's book about Harriet Tubman. Other African-American artists inspired by the Harlem Renaissance include Aaron Douglas and Romare Bearden.
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