Jacob Lawrence, Diners (also, Café Scene), 1942Gift of C. Leonard PfeifferGouache on paper, 14 1/4″ x 20″© 2013 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jacob Lawrence grew up in Harlem, New York during the 1930’s that was, despite the harsh conditions of the Depression (overcrowding, poverty, and poor living conditions), a city with the ability to produce illustrious cultural figures. Between 1932 and 1934 he took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop where he was able to meet Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, and other major writers, thinkers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. These individuals provided the young Lawrence with a concerned awareness of the African-American experience and history in America.
A consistent theme of Lawrence’s work is the use of the series as a format to narrate a story, as he felt that a single work could never convey the whole saga. His masterwork of storytelling is a series of sixty panels, called The Migration of the Negro (1940-1941), which dramatically depicts African-Americans moving North during the early 20th century to find better opportunities during the period known as the Great Migration. This was a subject he associated with his parents who had themselves migrated from South Carolina to New York. Its exhibition in New York marked the first time an African American artist was exhibited in a New York gallery. Just ten years prior, Lawrence and other black visitors were not welcome in New York art galleries.
Before painting the series The Migration, Lawrence had never personally experienced the South. The image, Diners (1942), documents his first travels to South Carolina to visit relatives in 1942. It is therefore, not his first painting of the American South, but the first based on his own experience. The painting Diners, with its dark colors and jagged shapes is a great contrast to his other works of the African-American experience (compare to The 1920’s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, 1976), where color and pattern are used to brighten the settings. Here the diners seem to almost fade into the dark background, suggesting the idea of poverty being invisible to most people.
Wheat, E. H. (1996). Jacob Lawrence: American Painter. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Jacob Lawrence’s parents were part of the Great Migration of African- Americans who left the South for the North. The peak of this mass exodus was from 1910-1916, but lasted until around 1940. During this period, Harlem experienced a huge growth, leading to the establishment of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League in order to advance the cause of the poverty, poor living conditions and overcrowding being experienced by the new mass population of African Americans in New York and the country.
During the 1920’s Harlem became the center of a massive cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance. Major thinkers, writers and artists lived and worked in Harlem, interacting and sharing ideas that stressed black achievement and self-realization, creating a vibrant hub of cultural renewal. Writers like Alaine Locke encouraged African-Americans “to turn to their heritage for cultural identity”. Lawrence was greatly influenced by Locke’s writings and speeches on the black experience in America, as evidenced by the subject matter he chose to visually narrate in his work.
Lawrence’s artistic training exposed him to the art styles of Social Realism as well as abstraction. Many artists of the 1930’s, like Lawrence, wanted to produce the Social Realistic images that dealt with socially critical themes but with flavors of the abstract style. Artists like the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera who promoted the idea that social change is possible through art, a corner stone of Social Realism, inspired in Lawrence a desire to advance the stories of the neglected African American heroes from history. Modernism, mostly in the style of abstraction had reached America’s shores by 1919, and by the 1930’s,New York City was the center of modern art, with most galleries exhibiting abstract styles such as cubism and expressionism.
Stokstad, M. (1995). Art History, Volume II. New York: Prentice Hall Inc.
Wheat, E. H. (1996). Jacob Lawrence: American Painter. Seattle:University ofWashington Press.
Using the Narrative Story Board worksheet, begin by recording Diners as the first scene in a story. Carefully draw what you see in the image by looking at the image and slowly draw the shapes, lines and details from Lawrence’s depiction of a southern diner. Imagine what happens next in the story, and then next. After you have completed the visual story board, write the story.
Expository- Text to Text Connection
Read Langston Hughes’ poem, One Way Ticket.
Look carefully at Jacob Lawrence’s Diners.
Use the Text to Text Comparison worksheet to organize and record observations.
Write a poem inspired by an analysis of the work Diners. Consider the time, place, and mood.
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