There are many churches in Harlem. The people are very religious., 1943
Transparent and opaque watercolor and tempera over graphite on watercolor paper
© 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
In this complex artwork, Jacob Lawrence addressed the central role of religion in New York’s Harlem community following the Great Migration, when two million African-Americans left the southern United States to relocate to the Midwest, Northeast, and West between 1910 and 1930. Having lived in Harlem since the age of thirteen, Lawrence understood how organized religion, particularly the storefront church he has depicted in this watercolor, provided a safe haven for those who had recently arrived from the South. By depicting a person inside the church responding to the orator’s ministry with dramatic outstretched arms and a woman outside the church walking with her bag of groceries, Lawrence underscored how spiritual devotion and everyday concerns coexisted in Harlem’s community.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and raised in Boston and Philadelphia, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) settled with his family in New York City’s Harlem around 1930, in the Great Depression years following the celebrated Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He began his art training in 1932, under the painter Charles Alston, at the Harlem Art Workshop in the 135th Street Public Library. Inspired by the library’s collection of materials on black history and culture, he decided to paint not just scenes of contemporary Harlem but also extended narratives drawn from African–American history. Between 1937 and 1943 Lawrence created a series of paintings recounting the lives of the eighteenth-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and the nineteenth-century black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as a series depicting the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North. The Migration Series—some sixty works in all, produced in 1940 and 1941—was shown at New York’s vanguard Downtown Gallery in 1941, when the artist was only twenty-four; three years later it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1946 he taught at the innovative Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the first of many teaching posts he would hold. In 1971 he accepted a permanent teaching position at the University of Washington and moved to Seattle, where he enjoyed increasing national and international acclaim during the last decades of his life.