Like many paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), The Visitors provides a glimpse into the life of people living in the tenements in Harlem, neighborhood of New York City. In the background of the painting, a minister confers last rites to a bedridden person, while in the foreground family and friends assemble to pay their respects and offer consolation.
Jacob Lawrence lived and worked in Harlem throughout most of his life. In addition to painting scenes of everyday life, he also painted several series of paintings about civil rights heroes like Harriet Tubman and John Brown and a series about The Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states to the north. Throughout his career, Lawrence’s paintings were widely celebrated for their beauty and emotional power.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like many southern African American families after the Civil War, Lawrence’s family fled north to escape the economic and social deprivations of former slave-holding states. His family had migrated from South Carolina and Virginia. Lawrence moved with his family from New Jersey to Easton, Pennsylvania where his father worked on the railroads as a cook. His parents separated when he was very young, and at age thirteen Lawrence settled with his mother in Harlem.
In Harlem, Lawrence benefitted from government funding programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided support to art education programs. He studied under the artist Charles Alston at the Utopia Children’s House daycare and later at the Harlem Art Workshop of the New York Public Library. He was a frequent visitor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where he studied the works of painters like Francisco de Goya, Pieter Breugel, and Henri Matisse. At this time, he became interested in African art and abstract art, and he began learning about important figures in African American history like Harriet Tubman and John Brown.
Lawrence was also inspired by the forms surrounding him. Though his life in Harlemwas frequently marked by economic hardship, he once recalled, “Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house. It must have had some influence, all this color and everything. Because we were so poor the people used this as a means of brightening their life. I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs; I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on.”
By the mid-1930s, Lawrence began to paint the lives and activities of regular Harlem residents. His paintings were praised for their ability to tell stories. In 1938, he completed his first narrative series, Toussaint L’Ouverture, an account of the Haitian slave who liberated his country from France in the 18th century. Lawrence followed this with series depicting the lives of figures like Frederick Douglass in 1939, Harriet Tubman in 1940, and John Brown in 1941. Of his work, he once said, "The human subject is the most important thing. My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed, but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content. . . . [I] want to communicate. I want the idea to stick right away."
In 1941, at 24 years of age, Lawrence became the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York gallery when his series The Migration of the Negro was exhibited in the Downtown Gallery. He later explored themes outside of African American history like his series Hiroshima and his series, Eight Studies from the Book of Genesis.
For his work in the arts, Lawrence received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Great Black Artists Award and the National Medal of Arts along with many other important awards and distinctions. In addition to working as a painter, he taught in colleges in New York and Washington.
Jacob Lawrence died in 2000 at the age of eighty-two.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the South became an increasingly inhospitable place for African Americans. Racism was institutionalized by the Jim Crow laws, public lynching became more and more commonplace, and restrictive requirements such as poll taxes effectively disenfranchised black voters. Additionally, wages remained low in much of the South, and an epidemic of boll weevils in 1898 devastated the cotton crops, which were at the center of the South’s economy.
By the 1910s and 1920s, rural African Americans began to migrate to the Northeast and Midwest seeking industrial and commercial jobs in major urban centers. Jobs were often plentiful and paid well because immigration dropped off during World War I. One of the most important centers for African American urban life was Harlem, where Jacob Lawrence moved with his mother in 1930.
Before he was born, Jacob Lawrence’s parents left their homes in South Carolina and Virginia, and the subject of The Great Migration was a common theme in Lawrence’s work. In one of his best-known series, The Migration of the Negro, Lawrence chronicled the lives of African Americans from the south streaming north to look for jobs after World War I.
During the 1920s and 1930s, as a result of The Great Migration of southern African Americans to the north, Harlem became an important center for African American creativity and culture. Jazz musicians, poets, novelists, and artists established themselves in Harlem where a vibrant and increasingly affluent African American community existed. Nearly a quarter of a million African Americans settled in Harlem during the period. This setting provided an important training ground for Jacob Lawrence who grew up in the community. Lawrence was among the first African American artists to be trained in the art schools and workshops of Harlem.
Of the 1930s, Lawrence once said it "was actually a wonderful period in Harlem although we didn't know this at the time. Of course it wasn't wonderful for our parents. For them, it was a struggle, but for the younger people coming along like myself, there was a real vitality in the community.”
1. Jacob Lawrence repeats several colors throughout this painting. Look, for instance, at areas where red or yellow hues appear. What other colors do you see repeated? How do Lawrence’s color choices impact the mood of the painting?
2. Who are the visitors? Look for the individual figures and figures in pairs. Imagine standing in the shoes of one of these figures. What emotions might you be feeling?
3. Does this painting tell a story? If so, what story does it tell? If not, what more would you need to know to understand the events taking place?
4. What makes a painting beautiful? Jacob Lawrence once said, “If at times my productions don’t express the conventionally beautiful, there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of Man’s continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being.” What might Lawrence mean by this?
5. What does someone mean when they use the phrase “the cycle of life and death?” What ideas about the cycle of life and death in the tenements of Harlem are expressed in The Visitors?
Compare The Visitors
with Soul Three
by Romare Bearden. What is the subject matter and mood of each work of art? If the characters in each painting were to meet, what might they say to each other?
2. Look carefully at each person or small group of people in this painting. What is each person doing? Write a brief monologue for each person that reveals his/her thoughts and emotions. Pay special attention to the five senses and imagine the full sensory effect of the experience within each person’s monologue.
3. Write a brief one-act scene in which you interact with one of the figures in this painting. What would you say to someone who is experiencing the pain, grief, or confusion of the figures in this painting? Select two classmates as your actors and direct their performance of the scene.
4. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s Harlem was rich with culture. Research a poet, musician, or painter from the Harlem Renaissance and compare his or her work to The Visitors.
5. Jacob Lawrence often investigated a particular subject through a series of paintings. Make a series of five or more drawings that illustrate important events in your family life and history. Events might include meal times, Sunday mornings, graduations, birthdays, weddings, or vacations. Lawrence included a range of emotions and reactions in his characters, and he often showed this through the body language and gestures of figures in his paintings. Investigate the body language and gestures in The Visitors and remember to include these important details in your drawings.
6. Storytelling is one of the ways people share their memories, experiences, and dreams. By conjuring up events, the storyteller re-creates episodes that can spark the imagination of others. Choose one of the pictures you made in the previous activity. Write and then tell the story of that picture to your classmates.
|Listen to a brief discussion of The Visitors.|
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997.
Hills, Patricia. Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009.
King-Hammond, Leslie. "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community," Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Dubois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2001.
Jacob Lawrence. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1960.
Turner, E. Hills, P. Karlstrom, P. King-Hammond, L. LeFalle-Collins, L. Powell, R. Sims, L. Steele, E. Nesbett, P. Lawrence, J. Over The Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. University of Washington Press, 2001.
Wheat, Ellen Harkins. Jacob Lawrence: American Painter. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press in association with the Seattle Art Museum, 1986.
Books for Students:
Coleman, Evelyn. Taylor, Dahl. Dearth, Greg. Mystery of the Dark Tower: A Bessie Mystery (American Girl History Mystery). American Girl, 2000.
Giovanni, Nikki. Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking At The Harlem Renaissance Through Poems. Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
Haskins, Jim. Tate, Eleanora E. Cox, Clinton. Wilkinson, Brenda. Black Stars of the Harlem Renaissance. Wiley, 2002.
Lawrence, Jacob. The Great Migration: An American Story. Harper Collins, 1995.
Venezia, Mike. Jacob Lawrence: Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists. Children’s Press, 2000.
This site has reproductions of Lawrence’s art, information about his life, and other resources.
You can find information on the life and art of Jacob and his wife Gwen Knight Lawrence on this site.
This resource contains an extensive definition of the Harlem Renaissance, its representatives and its legacy.
This website includes several multimedia materials from artists of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
This resource discusses some misconceptions about the art of the Harlem Renaissance.
This is an interactive webpage about Jacob Lawrence.