Honoring black Marylanders: Jacob Lawrence's paintings of Douglass and Tubman


December 01, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Frederick Douglass, the slave who became an abolitionist leader, and Harriet Tubman, the slave who led 300 others to freedom, are two of this state's most heroic natives. Born in bondage on the Eastern Shore, they had to escape Maryland in order to embrace their illustrious careers. But they're back now in triumph, in "Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-40" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Painter Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1917, but from 1930 lived in Harlem, in the shadow of the Harlem renaissance, and became interested both in art and in African-American history. He combined those interests in his series paintings, for which he is probably best known.

Although he was only in his early 20s when he embarked on "Douglass," it was not his first series; in 1937 and 1938 he painted "Toussaint L'Ouverture," about the Haitian slave who led his country's struggle for liberation from France.

To the subsequent "Douglass" and "Tubman" series, totaling 63 small paintings, Lawrence brought a combination of youthful fervor, a direct and somewhat folklike style whose simplicity contributes to its effectiveness, and a desire to communicate the trials and triumphs of his two inspiring subjects.

Each painting is accompanied by a caption added by Lawrence, so that the cumulative effect is something like an illustrated biography. If that sounds dull, it's anything but. Each painting has a vivid narrative clarity, and they are installed in groups in which each picture abuts the ones on either side, so that the eye sees several at the same time. The effect is almost that of a play or film, capturing the dramatic flow of these lives.

Lawrence also used a limited palette in which strong primary colors reverberate against dark backgrounds; this and the frequent use of angles, diagonals and thrusting gestures produce a rhythmic momentum further propelling the viewer on.

The first two of the Douglass series' 32 paintings establish the kind of punch Lawrence keeps on delivering. The first is a "long shot" of the Talbot County plantation where Douglass was born a slave to the Lloyd family in 1818; we see fields, buildings, farm workers, and children playing, an overview of a life that looks peaceful enough.

In the second it is as if the camera has zoomed through the door and into one of the buildings; it's a bare wooden structure with a clay floor where Douglass' mother, who had been "hired out" elsewhere, comes back to visit him in the dark of night, by the light of a single candle.

"The only recollections he had of his mother were those few hasty visits," the caption reads. We are suddenly in the midst of the terrible world of the slave, who owns nothing, but is owned, and can be used at the will of another like a piece of furniture.

As Ellen Harkins Wheat writes in the show's notably direct and informative catalog, in this painting "the cabin walls are askew, creating a sense of tension." Their rows of logs also suggest prison bars, and the small window open to dark blue sky high up on one wall symbolizes the freedom that is out of reach for these people.

Lawrence's paintings highlight the decisive moments in Douglass' young life -- he witnesses the flogging of another slave; he hides behind the chair of the mistress who taught him to read as she is berated for it by the master of the house; he resists a flogging himself; he attempts to escape and is caught -- until finally in the late 1830s he does escape and makes his way north.

Throughout the series, as Douglass grows increasingly famous as an abolitionist before the Civil War and later in life becomes a government official, Lawrence makes use of the drama of visual contrast. Crowd and action scenes alternate with those of conversation or solitude, emphasizing the dual nature of Douglass' life of action on the one hand and thought and writing on the other.

At the end, Douglass returns to the Eastern Shore a free man. But in this last painting Lawrence does not depict him. Instead, an American flag (symbol of victory and union), stands in the soil under a blue sky (symbol of freedom) that now covers two thirds of the painting's surface; and a flower (symbol of hope) springs up, echoing the flower that in a much earlier panel sprang from the soil of the slaves' cabin.

In her essay on the Douglass series, Wheat informs us that he painted it in an unusual way; he first made drawings of each of the paintings, then "mixed a color and filled the areas in each panel where that color was to appear," repeating the process for every color.

In the slightly later Tubman series Lawrence clothes the protagonist in white throughout, both symbolizing her good deeds and making

her recognizable in scenes with multiple figures.

As Wheat points out, the Tubman series is heavily symbolic, especially with references to the Old and New Testaments, from the serpent of the Garden of Eden to a Pieta pose as Harriet nurses a soldier in the Civil War.

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