Seattle Art Museum Debuts New Jacob Lawrence Exhibit: The American Struggle

by Chamidae Ford

On March 5 the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) opened its new Jacob Lawrence exhibit, “The American Struggle,” to the public.

The American Struggle” takes us on a journey through American history, reframing the narratives we have heard for centuries. 

During the creation of this series in 1954, Lawrence was spending countless days at what was then called the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. He spent his time learning about not only the American history taught in schools but history told through other perspectives, which inspired this series.

Theresa Papanikolas, the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at SAM, discussed during a press preview how Lawrence offers more perspectives on the making of America. 

Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

“What the ‘Struggle’ series is offering is a more inclusive version of American history,” Papanikolas said. 

The exhibit offers not just the perspectives of the white male leaders but those of Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, and women — people who have historically been left out of the narratives but who fully existed and participated in historical moments throughout history. 

In 1954, Jacob Lawrence said that the exhibit had evolved over time. 

“It seems that this project has ceased to be the story of the Negro people in America and become the story of the American people,” Lawrence said. 

The “American people” are not the famous leaders but the ones behind them and harmed by them.

“‘We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton … the night was excessively severe … which the men bore without the least murmur…’ —Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776,” by Jacob Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.)

For instance, Panel 10 is a play on Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Lawrence painted his take on the event inspired by the words in the journal of one of Washington’s men, Tench Tilghman. Lawrence’s rendition highlights the bravery and determination of the soldiers, rather than a dedication to Washington’s leadership.

Lawrence uses the title of Panel 10, “‘We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton … the night was excessively severe … which the men bore without the least murmur…’ —Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776” to highlight Tilghman’s words and allow us to see the inspiration behind the piece. This decision to use a quote rather than a simple title is a common occurrence throughout the series. 

Lawrence’s series of paintings, “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” was last fully displayed in 1958 before the pieces were sold individually and spread across the world. Due to the dispersal of the exhibit, only 27 of the 30 panels have been recovered. 

The piece that remains truly a mystery is Panel 20, titled “Spindles” — all but the name is unknown. An empty frame hangs in its place, and the description asks us to craft our own idea of what the painting may have looked like. 

“Spindles,” by Jacob Lawrence. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.)

Throughout the exhibit, the descriptions urge viewers to engage in deeper thought about the images they are seeing. The exhibit is accompanied by a guide you can access through your phone that provides detailed background on each piece. 

A recurring point throughout this exhibit is the way Lawrence has managed to weave past, present, and ultimately the future into these paintings. The exhibit, while painted from the inspiration of the making of America, highlights century-long struggles that still exist today. This allows people from all eras to find a connection to the series. 

“Lawrence painted the series against the backdrop of social and political turmoil in America,” Papanikolas said. “He really saw the issue of struggle woven into the fabric of American life.” 

In the last year, we have seen a resurgence of civil unrest and the continued effort within the Black Lives Matter movement to fight for equality and freedom. The effort of our ancestors is reflected in our own fights. This message is something Lawrence managed to convey throughout this series. 

The Black struggle is ingrained in this collection. Panel 27 truly illuminates the fight for liberation. 

Panel 27 of Jacob Lawrence’s 1958 series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” now on display at Seattle Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.)

Two Black men are struggling against two white men. Rifles float in the air and they all reach to grab ahold of the weapons. The piece is inspired by a letter by Captain James, an enslaved man from Georgia who was planning a revolt. The discovery of the letter discussing the logistics of the revolt put this effort for freedom to a grinding halt. That being said, it did not dampen their desire for liberation. In the painting, the oppression of the Black body is seen not just through the scars on their backs but through the physical rifles that the two groups of men are fighting to get control over. It is a struggle for power.

When you look at the piece you can see the ways Black people have been fighting to be free of oppression for centuries. It echoes Lawrence’s time of protests and sit-ins from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter movement. 

The struggle of the people exists within every stroke. Lawrence also highlights the obstacles immigrants face in Panel 28.

Titled “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840 —115,773,” it is one of the most recently recovered pieces, featuring three people huddled together: one holding onto a potted rose, the American flower, another clutching her infant. It tells the less romanticized story of immigration. Lawrence made a stylistic choice of painting the subjects’ hands quite large, which immediately draws the eyes — a decision that highlights that they are holding all they can, carrying the weight of their families and their survival, stretching beyond the average expectation of what one should be able to carry. Despite the weathered aspect of their hands, they are still reaching for opportunity, as well. 

Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

While these paintings were made nearly 70 years ago, they still manage to ring true for many of the viewers of the collection today. 

The exhibit also features installations from contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas, whose work also plays into the American struggle. 

See “The American Struggle” at SAM from now till May 23, open Friday through Sunday. Read the museum’s COVID-19 guidelines on their website.

Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

Featured image courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

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