Historicism in Paint

Currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art is Heroism in Paint: A Master Series by Jacob Lawrence, featuring the world-renowned painter’s first venture in creating a series of historical paintings.

click to enlarge “Toussaint L’Ouverture series, no. 38” by Jacob Lawrence, 1938
“Toussaint L’Ouverture series, no. 38” by Jacob Lawrence, 1938

Currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art is Heroism in Paint: A Master Series by Jacob Lawrence, featuring the world-renowned painter’s first venture in creating a series of historical paintings — The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series, which launched his successful 60-plus-year artistic career and made him into a de facto historian.

Lawrence was profoundly influenced by artists of the Harlem Renaissance, whom he often came into contact with but were a decade or so older — so he had plenty of role models to look to as a young artist.

The painter was not only exceptional for being a successful black artist in his day, but he was also a recipient of prolonged arts boostership: Lawrence began classes at the Harlem Artists Guild as a teenager, was a recipient of numerous fellowships and grants and was enrolled as an easel painter in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. As a result of this mentorship and early arts education, he painted the cycle of 41 colorful, tempera-on-paper paintings about the first successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1938 at the tender age of 21.

The work was revolutionary for the time — owing largely to the fact that Lawrence was shining a light on the power of black self-determination, in addition to filling significant gaps in the historical record. And by the 1940s he had achieved substantial recognition for his narrative cycles, which allowed him to add his visual imagery as well as his scholarly research (in the form of didactic labeling) to the then-largely uncharted waters of African-American history.

When seen through a contemporary, socially conscious lens, what we can learn today from looking back at Lawrence’s paintings and corresponding labeling (which the Taft has kept intact and contextualized with their own label copy) is that the story of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture is as much a reflection of the artist’s honorable intentions as they are a testament to the limitations of historical research during his lifetime.

Some of the most striking pieces in the L’Ouverture series are the ones in which Lawrence allows his abstracted patterns of color to set a mood. Painting 21, for example, depicts the aftermath of the Haitian general’s attack on the English at Artibonite. In this figureless landscape, the painter puts the colonial commodity of sugarcane front and center in the composition, which is largely composed of contrasting shades and tones of undulating green sugarcane reeds.

In the top third of the painting, Lawrence inserted six rudimentary buildings with small fires triangulating from the tops of their roofs. But it is the tall, sinewy reeds that seem to stoke the flames of revolution more than the actual blaze.

Just as Lawrence often reduced his figurative subjects to abstract patterns of color and form, he likewise simplified nuances in the historical record. For example, he begins L’Ouverture’s story with Christopher Columbus’ ostensible “discovery” of Haiti; whereas nowadays we understand that the imperialist intentions of Columbus are far from an appropriate starting point for any official history — particularly that of a colonized land.

In Lawrence’s own words from 1940, “They never taught Negro history in public schools. Having no … history makes the Negro people feel inferior to the rest of the world.” And it is well-documented that the artist’s intentions were far from reinforcing outdated paradigms of history. To the contrary: He wanted to bring truth into the historical record.

But how does an artist — operating as a historian — make their work accessible, without paring down the complicated task of retelling history, when it is so often based on “facts” that are written by and for the winners?

Jacob Lawrence told stories related to the African-American experience, rooted in the limited scholarship of his time. And as time goes on, artists will continue to tell truths, but it is up to audiences to recontextualize the verity of such facts.

HEROISM IN PAINT: A MASTER SERIES BY JACOB LAWRENCE is on view through Jan. 17 at the Taft Museum of Art. More info: taftmuseum.org.