October 22, 2020

Historic Jacob Lawrence Exhibition Leads to Discovery of Missing Painting

by joeyphoenix

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From the Peabody Essex Museum

A painting by esteemed American artist Jacob Lawrence, unlocated for decades, has been discovered and will join the nationally-touring exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). Panel number 16 is one of 30 that comprise Lawrence’s powerful epic series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56), and it will be reunited this week with the series’ other works, now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City through November 1. 

Until now, the missing panel which had not been seen publicly since 1960, was represented in the exhibition as an empty frame, waiting to be filled. A keen-eyed visitor to The Met, who knew of a Jacob Lawrence painting that had been in a neighbor’s collection for years, suspected that painting might belong to the Struggle series and encouraged the owners to contact the museum. 

“Since reuniting the Struggle series, the absence of panel 16 has been felt acutely. It was a mystery that we were all eager to solve,” said Brian Kennedy, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO. “We are thrilled to learn of its discovery — one that came about thanks to close looking and careful observation by a museum visitor.  We appreciate the generosity of Panel 16’s owner allowing it to join the national tour of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” 

Before this discovery, five of the 30 panels painted by Lawrence for the Struggle series were lost and two of those were identified only by their titles. The existence of Panel 16 was known through a brochure that accompanied the first showing of the Struggle series in New York in December 1956 at the Alan Gallery. In May 1958, the panels were exhibited again at the gallery and had not been seen together as a group until PEM’s 2020 organization of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Following its inclusion in the presentation at The Met, the work will join the touring exhibition which travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.   

“It was our fervent hope that the missing panels would somehow surface during the run of American Struggle in New York, the city where Lawrence spent most of his life and where the series was last seen publicly,” said Randall Griffey, Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman, Curator in Charge of the American Wing, who co-organized The Met’s presentation of the exhibition. “Lawrence’s dynamic treatment of the 1786–87 Shays’ Rebellion reinforces the overall theme of the series — that democratic change is possible only through the actions of engaged citizens, an argument as timely today as it was when the artist produced his radical paintings in the mid-1950s.”

Titled by the artist There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, the painting depicts the armed uprising against higher taxation from the state. Two groups of soldiers clash in the horizontal composition as opposing boots touch toes and bayonet tips pierce flesh. On both sides, steady hands grip weapons as they criss cross in the enclosing space between pacts. Shays’ Rebellion, which took place in Springfield, Massachusetts, spurred the writing of the U.S. Constitution and efforts to strengthen federal power.

“Lawrence reserved the most colorful scheme for the citizen army,” says Lydia Gordon, PEM’s Associate Curator. “The sunny yellow of a boot and cloak vibrates against a figure in evergreen. The rich blue of the uniforms that dominate throughout the Struggle paintings conjure the powerful triadic balance that made Lawrence a master colorist. Among this visual feast, anguish remains on faces from both sides — dread and exhaustion — a fight not done fighting.” 

The Struggle series and the exhibition have continued to resonate with PEM staff and visitors alike throughout the racial uprisings of 2020. Read reflections at pem.org/blog and learn more about the other missing panels and all of the panels in the Struggle series at pem.org/panels.

“In an art world that seems to constantly shift and stand still simultaneously, it is important to celebrate this long-lost painting’s return because we can now read this timely series more fully,” says Gordon. “It has been a thrill to work on a 60-year-old project in 2020 that examines the struggle for American democracy, giving hope to a new generation of people impacted by Lawrence’s timeless artistic vision.” 

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is the first museum exhibition of the series of paintings Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) by the best known black American artist of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Created during the modern civil rights era, Lawrence’s thirty intimate panels interpret pivotal moments in the American Revolution and the early decades of the republic between 1770 and 1817 and, as he wrote, “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.”

Reunited for the first time in more than sixty years, the Struggle paintings revive Lawrence’s way of reimagining American history as shared history. Utilizing historical fact to underscore universal values, he created a broader narrative of U.S. history by pairing image and text, quoting a range of voices and rendering figures from prominent Founding Fathers to underrepresented historical actors. The exhibition, organized by PEM, will tour nationally through 2021.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation, Jennifer and Andrew Borggaard, James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Kate and Ford O’Neil, Henry and Callie Brauer and Burt Adelman and Lydia Rogers provided generous support. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum. In-Kind Media Partner: WBUR. Media PartnerThe Boston Globe. 

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