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Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers, 1945-2005

Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers, 1945-2005

Lawrence, Jacob, 1917-2000

Painter, Educator

Collection Information

Size: 9.0 linear feet

Addition: 27.8 linear feet

Summary: Biographical material, correspondence, writings, exhibition files, works of art, financial records and printed material documenting the careers of African-American artists Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight.

Correspondence is with friends, artists, students, school children, art schools, galleries, museums, and others. Also included are writings by Lawrence and others, newsclippings, exhibition catalogs and announcements, press releases, brochures, books, photographs of Lawrence, Knight, and Lawrence's artwork, scattered financial and business records, primarily relating to Lawrence's relationship with the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York, and two small lithographs by James Rosenquist.

An addition of 27.8 linear feet received 2012 contains materials dating 1970-2005, includes biographical material, correspondence, exhibition files, and printed material. Among the biographical material is a significant amount (8.3 linear feet) of plaques, certificates, awards, trophies and inscribed books given to Lawerence and Knight. Correspondence, both professional and personal, relates to the operation of the Foundation, Gwendolyn Knight's career, and the movement, authentication, and exhibition of Jacob Lawrence's work after his death. Also present are many letters and cards of condolence from significant figures in American art to Gwendolyn Knight after Lawrence's death. Exhibition files and printed materials relate to both artists' work.

Biographical/Historical Note

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an African-American painter and educator in New York, New York and Seattle, Washington. Born Jacob Armstead Lawrence, September 17, 1917, Atlantic City, N.J. He died June 9, 2000, in Seattle. Worked for the WPA's Federal Art Project and taught at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, Pratt Institute (1956-1971), Brandeis University (1965), The New School (1966), the Art Students League (1967), the University of Washington, and others. Lawrence was married to African-American painter, Gwendolyn Knight.


Donated 1979-1997 by Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight and 2012 by the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation via Barbara Earl Thomas, representative.

Related Materials

Jacob Lawrence papers are also located at Syracuse University Library, Special Collections Department were loaned to the Archives of American Art in 1993 for microfilming on reels 4571-4573.


Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Papers,
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
Modernist painter and educator Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was born in 1917 as Jacob Armstead Lawrence in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He began his art studies at the Utopia Children's Center in New York City's Harlem district where he studied under the painter Charles Alston. Lawrence dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen to continue his art instruction with Alston but this time at the Harlem Art Workshop where he met several artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance including the sculptor Augusta Savage.
Gwendolyn Knight (b.1913) was born in Barbados and moved to New York City with her adoptive parents when she was seven. She attended New York's Wadleigh High School and later Howard University in Washington, D. C. where she studied fine arts with Lois Mailou Jones and James Porter. Forced to leave her studies at Howard because of the Depression, Knight returned to Harlem and continued her artistic pursuits in Augusta Savage's workshop. In1935, Knight joined the Harlem Mural Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) working under Selma Day and Charles Alston. Lawrence and Knight met in Savage's workshop and married in the summer of 1941.
During the Depression, Lawrence also joined the WPA Federal Arts Project in Harlem. Finding WPA murals overwhelming, Lawrence concentrated on traditional painting instead. He produced his first major works in the late 1930s, most notably the Toussaint L'Ouverture series, images that document the life of the revolutionary hero and Haiti's struggle for independence. Other significant works include visual narratives of the lives of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. In 1940, Lawrence received the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship making it possible to purchase his first art studio on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. He soon portrayed Harlem street life in paintings that became commentaries on the role of African Americans in United States society with highly developed themes of resistance and social opposition. That same year, Lawrence began his most celebrated series, 'The Migration of the American Negro,' multiple tempera panels depicting the exodus of African American sharecroppers in the south to northern industrial cities in search of better employment and social opportunities. Edith Halpert exhibited the works in their entirety at her Downtown Gallery in 1941 establishing Lawrence as the first African American artist to exhibit in a top New York gallery. The following year, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC each bought half of the sixty panels in the series, helping to further Lawrence's career within the larger world of American art.
In the summer of 1946, the artist Joseph Albers invited Lawrence to teach at North Carolina's Black Mountain College. It was the first in a series of teaching positions in prestigious art schools including Pratt Institute (1956-1971), Brandeis University (1965), The New School (1966), the Art Students League (1967), and others. During the 1950s and 1960s, Lawrence's work continued to focus on racism and political activism but in the late 1960s shifted to themes of racial harmony.
Both Lawrence and Knight continued independent careers in art. Knight pursued her art studies at the New School in New York and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. In the mid-1960s, she collaborated with other female artists to form the Studio Gallery in New York City. Knight's main body of work consists of portraits and still-lifes that incorporate expressions of African sculpture, Impressionism, dance and theater. Focusing on gesture, her art is described as light and airy with a minimum of lines allowing empty space to define the work.
In 1970, Lawrence traveled to Seattle to teach as a visiting artist at the University of Washington. He was hired on a permanent basis the following year and remained on staff until his retirement in 1986. Jacob Lawrence died June 9, 2000, in Seattle, Washington at the age of 83. Gwendolyn Knight continues to live and paint in Seattle and actively exhibits her work around the country.
The collection is arranged into 7 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1951, circa 1967-1995(Box 1, OV 10; 4 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1952, circa 1962-1995 (Box 1-5; 4.5 linear feet)
Series 3: Writings and Lists, circa 1973-1995 (Box 5-6; 6 folders)
Series 4: Printed Material, circa 1945-1995 (Box 6-9; 3.8 linear feet)
Series 5: Photographs, circa 1986-1991 (Box 9, OV 10; 3 folders)
Series 6: Financial and Business Files, 1962-1992 (Box 9; 7 folders)
Series 7: Original Artwork, 1984, undated (Box 9; 1 folder)
Series 8: Unprocessed Addition, 1970-2005 (Box 11-41, OV 42; 27.8 linear feet)
Donated 1979-1997 by Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight and 2012 by the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation via Barbara Earl Thomas, representative.
Processing Information
Several accretions of the papers, including material previously microfilmed on reel 3042, were merged and fully processed between 2003 and 2005 by by Rosa Fernandez, Jetta Sumulski, and Emma Lincoln. Additional papers received in 2012 have not been processed.

Additional Forms Available

A portion of the collection dating 1945-1995, donated between 1979-1997 was digitized in 2007 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website. Books, printed materials, photographs of artwork, and the addition received in 2012 have not been digitized.

microfilm reels D286, and 4571-4573, containing papers lent for microfilming in 1966 and 1993, are available at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight papers, 1945-2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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