Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

Letter from Home

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Letter from Home
signed and dated 'Jacob Lawrence/1947' (lower right)
tempera on board
20 x 15 ¾ in. (50.8 x 40 cm.)
Painted in 1947.
The artist.
The Downtown Gallery, New York (as Letter from Europe).
Alan Brandt, New York.
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.
The Manoogian Collection, Michigan, acquired from the above.
[With]Jonathan Boos, New York.
Private collection, Michigan, acquired from the above.
P.T. Nesbett, M. DuBois, Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935-1999), A Catalogue Raisonné, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 102, no. P47-06, illustrated.
R. Boyle, Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930 – 1950, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, pp. 72-74, pl. 24, illustrated.
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum; Akron, Ohio, Akron Art Museum; Lawrence, Kansas, University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art, Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950, March 9-November 17, 2002, pp. 72, 74, 220, no. 24, illustrated.
Savannah, Georgia, Savannah College of Art and Design, Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence, September 7, 2017-February 4, 2018.

Lot Essay

Based on his experiences living in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Jacob Lawrence’s original depictions of the African-American experience have come to be appreciated as defining achievements in the history of American art. Notable in his early inclusion within the artistic circles of Edith Halpert and her Downtown Gallery, Lawrence was not only among the first African-American artists to be represented by a major dealer, but also a successful member of the urban modernist set. While other social realist artists of his day rejected tenants of Modernism, Lawrence found the raw forms and bare styles of art’s new direction to be the perfect vehicle for his wholly unique narrative.

In the present work, Letter from Home, Lawrence utilizes these modern devices to dramatize his scene of a solemn woman setting aside her needlework to read news from afar. Reduced to angular, geometric forms in a limited palette, the figure rests on an almost bare mattress placed within a sparse, cube-like room. The spare composition and flat execution heighten the emotional narrative of the picture and its moving evocation of both desolation and hope.

This particular narrative was one that Lawrence regularly embraced, including within his famous World War II themed works. Perhaps due in part to Edith Halpert’s having initially exhibited the present work under the title Letter from Europe, the painting has been grouped with Lawrence's War series, also painted in 1947. One War series work, The Letter (1947, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), bears a strong narrative resemblance, featuring a figure staring down at a message but with a decidedly darker, more military undertone.

While the present work can be considered in the context of war, Letter from Home also suggests a yearning for the warmth of a home outside the often poor conditions of the 1940s Harlem tenements. In this way, the work relates to the broader themes of Lawrence's renowned Great Migration series, which earned the artist his national reputation when published in Fortune magazine in 1941 and exhibited around the country from 1942-44. In his works that followed from the late 1940s, including Letter From Home, Lawrence used his success as a platform to present to a larger audience his honest visions of city living, confirming for Harlem residents that they were not invisible in the modern world.

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