With some regional museums still closed and planning to reopen, we are continuing to remind readers of their important collections by highlighting visual art works you can visit as soon as social distancing practices change and museum doors open.
This week’s pick is Jacob Lawrence’s 1943 painting “The Music Lesson,” part of his “Harlem Series.” The work is part of the State Museum’s extensive collection of art by Americans of African heritage.
In the publication “Art By African Americans in the Collection of the New Jersey State Museum,” arts writer Lisa Farrington-Kent noted the following about Jacob Lawrence and “The Music Lesson”:
Timeless images of Harlem and African-American heroes and heroism, configured in meticulously structured spaces are the hallmarks of the art of Jacob Lawrence. Beginning with his earliest painting sequences — “Fredrick Douglass” (1938-39), “Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1939), “Harriet Tubman” (1939-40), “Migration” (1940-41), “John Brown” (1941), and “Harlem (1942-43) — Lawrence has explored human experience through the microcosm of his own life and culture. Inspired by formal principles of Cubism and by old masters, Lawrence has produced a body of work that is visually, emotionally, and intellectually provocative.
Born in Atlantic City, Lawrence moved when he was 13 years old to Harlem at a time when the neighborhood was teeming with black visual and literary culture. Concepts of the “New Negro” proliferated; philosopher Alain Locke was advising artists to look to their African heritage for inspiration. Meanwhile, the “Jazz Age” was in full swing. The dazzling nightlife and cultural milieu of Harlem were set against the backdrop of the Depression; thus, Lawrence also witnessed poverty and struggle. His “Harlem” series, created when he was 25, compassionately portrays urban life. Supported by his third Rosenwald Fund award, Lawrence painted 30 Harlem genre scenes, ranging from pulsating city views to intimate interiors. Number 27 of the series, “The Music Lesson” (1943), incorporates a vibrant red and blue palate, flatly painted forms, and shifting planes. Using an explicit narrative vernacular, Lawrence presents us with an image of a nurturing parent/teacher and an attentive, hard-working child. Their bodies, placed close together, bear witness to the positive exchanges that are so much a part of the black experience.
Lawrence had his first one-man show early, at the age of 20. Moreover, the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (Phillips Collection) each purchased half of the panels in the “Migration” series when the artist was not yet 25. Lawrence continued to work and exhibit consistently over the next several decades, beginning in the 1960s to experiment successfully with printmaking. In 1971 he was appointed full professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. He died in that city in 2000.
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, www.state.nj.us/state/museum.