The Toussaint L’Ouverture Series: Jacob Lawrence’s Dynamic Chronicle of the Haitian Revolution On View Now

As one of the great American modern artists, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) brought to life important historical events and contemporary scenes through a striking style of elemental forms and expressive colors. Among his notable achievements are works in extended series tackling heroic stories and themes. The first of these monumental efforts, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, is showcased this fall in our prints and drawings gallery. Consisting of 41 individual tempera-on-paper compositions—for which Lawrence also composed numbered captions—the series chronicles Toussaint’s exploits in commanding the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s emancipation from European rule in 1804, thereby establishing the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.

Born in Atlantic City and reared near Philadelphia, the teenaged Lawrence moved to Harlem in 1930, an especially propitious place and time for a budding artist. There he received the bulk of his training within the African American community of creative figures who manifested the Harlem Renaissance. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop and Studio, and at the Harlem Community Art Center, further honing his skills as a member of the Federal Art Project, a government-funded program established to employ artists during the dire economic years of the Great Depression. Influenced by a prevailing aesthetic philosophy of the New Negro movement well under way at the time, the young Lawrence developed the belief that art should embody a quest for both self- and communal identity.

While attending lectures and reading books at the 135th Street Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, Lawrence became fascinated with black historical subject matter, which had not been part of his formal educational curriculum. His pursuit of history was both academic and inspirational; indeed, he was steadfast in believing that the past has considerable relevance for the present. Regarding his motivation for addressing the Haitian Revolution, Lawrence stated in 1940: “I didn’t do it just as an 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.”

Influenced by storytelling techniques derived from film, the Toussaint L’Ouverture series unfolds episodically and kaleidoscopically, presenting scenes at various locations, during various times, and from various points of view. Each scene was carefully orchestrated for content; before picking up his brushes, Lawrence spent several weeks poring over biographies of Toussaint’s life, as well as historical and socioeconomic accounts of Haiti. Like a screenwriter, the artist emphasized, condensed, or omitted narrative details in order to underscore his overriding message. For Lawrence, Toussaint’s prominent roles in commandeering the Haitian Revolution and drafting the country’s new constitution epitomized the ability of an authoritative individual to bring about major social change.

Evident throughout the series is Lawrence’s strong acumen in manipulating shapes and colors to communicate with clarity and emotion. Demonstrating his penchant for dynamic yet cohesive patterning, the artist repeated colors and motifs in order to unify the sequence across its individual images. By employing flat shapes bereft of shading and cast shadows, he eliminated extraneous detail and strove for greater legibility. A pronounced sense of graphic design predominates throughout, so when viewed in their totality the 41 images generate a cumulative visual power, an upshot rendered even more forceful by the intimate spaces of our prints and drawings gallery.

Created in 1937–38, when Lawrence was just 20 years old, the Toussaint L’Ouverture series launched the artist’s career on a national stage, and its success provided momentum to further elaborate his aesthetic vision. For the next six decades, Lawrence continued to harness the power of abstracted forms to address significant social issues, and a host of gallery and museum exhibitions amplified his fame. At the time of his death at the age of 82, he was among the most distinguished artists in the nation.  

See Jacob Lawrence: The Toussaint L'Ouverture Series at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 4, 2015!
Pictured above: 
The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, No. 20: General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks, 1938. Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000). Tempera on paper; 48.3 x 29.2 cm. Courtesy Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Aaron Douglas Collection.
*Members See It First: This article also appears in the September/October issue of the CMA Member Magazine.

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