History is catching up with Jacob Lawrence. Though it is increasingly indisputable that he is among the most important painters of the twentieth century, the reasons for his importance remain open to debate. Yes, Lawrence was the first American artist of African descent to be represented by a major New York art gallery--he showed with the prestigious Downtown Gallery from 1941 to 1953. It is also true that he was the only American artist of African descent whose work had widespread visibility within the mainstream art world during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. But query art historians about which is Lawrence's most important body of work, and you will get a variety of opinions.
Some would argue that it is his heart-wrenching images of life in Harlem in the mid to late 1930s and early 1940s--rendered with a gritty realism akin to that found in Richard Wright's writing of the same era. These works pictured a Harlem seldom seen. Lawrence painted positive images of the community--honoring the contributions of librarians, teachers, single-mothers--but he also pictured Harlem's darker side, its prostitutes, bootleggers, gamblers, funeral homes. He depicted police brutality, evictions, and captured, to stunning effect, the tensions between Caucasian business owners and the neighborhood's newer and growing African-American residents. While other artists painted idealized images to counter negative racial stereotypes; Lawrence painted life as he saw it.
More art historians, however, would argue that Lawrence's greatest contributions are the epic painting cycles he created at the same time as the Harlem paintings. Between 1937 and 1941, he produced five cycles in all, four of them on the lives of abolitionists--Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown--and "The Migration of the Negro," a sixty-panel narrative about the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during and after World War I. These cycles provided widespread accessibility to subjects that were not regularly treated as part of American history, and because the individual paintings were small and lightweight--they measured no more than 18 by 12 inches--they could travel easily, which they did.
It is hard to dispute such positions. Both the Harlem paintings and the paintings cycles are distinct and critical contributions to art history in the 20th century. But paintings such as Ventriloquist, from 1952, are of equal historical value in that they are rare and powerful expressions in the visual arts of the existential reality of being African-American in mid-twentieth century America. Within the history of art, these paintings are exceptional.
Ventriloquist shares certain affinities with the "performance" or "theater" paintings Lawrence was making in 1951 and 1952. At the time, he was frequenting the theater with Charles Alan, an employee of The Downtown Gallery. The paintings, which were exhibited in January 1953 in Lawrence's last solo exhibition at the gallery, visualize life on both sides of the curtain: in dressing rooms, backstage, and from the audience. The overall mood in these works is tragicomic, or rather, a brightly patterned surface treatment--found in the stage sets, costumes, or the artist's overall organization of the compositions--masks an underlying sense of sadness, isolation, or despair. Ventriloquist wasn't listed on the checklist for the Downtown Gallery exhibition, but gallery records note that the painting was delivered with the others. The reason for its exclusion may have been its subject matter: it was not an image of the theater or stage performance, as were the others on view (among them Concert (1952, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York), Curtain (1952, private collection, Beverly Hills, California), Makeup (1952, Elizabeth and William M. Landes, Chicago, Illinois) and Vaudeville (1952, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)).
The setting for Ventriloquist is ambiguous. It appears to be a formal party, a benefit, or an expensive nightclub, given the dress of the guests, who are dignified, middle-aged or older. The men wear tuxedos, adorned with sparkling studs and tiepins. The women also don the signs of high culture: lace veils, elaborate hats, pearl necklaces, brightly colored fans. The tables, which are clothed but devoid of tableware, support crystal vases that sprout palm- or fern-like cuttings. The overall composition is woven together by the diamond patterning of the blue and ochre tabletops.
At the painting's center, lost in the visual commotion of the scene, sits the ventriloquist. A dark-skinned boy, he holds on his lap an equally dark-skinned dummy in a top hat and brightly patterned coat. Their two bodies are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and their lips align in a manner that underscores the fact that both speak from the same mouth. In short, there is a ready identification between the speaker and his subject, the illusionist and his medium. Still, the ventriloquist and his dummy sit alone, a part of the overall fabric of the composition but socially alienated. The eyes of some of the light-skinned guests are eagerly upon him; the dark-skinned figures appear more ambivalent.
The motif of the isolated figure in a crowd, seen with increasing frequency in Lawrence's work at this time, has been written about by the art historian Richard J. Powell. Writing about the painting Strike (1949, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., fig. 1), which pictures a lone black catcher--most likely, Roy Campanella--on the field with white players, a white umpire, and a multi-ethnic audience, Powell notes, "The black catcher, like Lawrence, was successful in a profession where blacks hardly figured at all, and when they did, usually in a segregated context." (To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, exhibition catalogue, Andover, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 147) Powell's interpretation of this painting as one in which Lawrence identified with the subject's social predicament can be applied to an understanding of Ventriloquist as well. Rather than an accomplished professional, however, the painting's subject is a young man, or even a child.
Lawrence himself was recognized early as a child prodigy by his teachers at the Harlem Community Art Center. By the time he was twenty-six, he had already exhibited his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and elsewhere. At The Downtown Gallery, he was generations younger than most of the other artists, including Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, and John Marin. By the time Ventriloquist was painted, he'd been a commercially successful artist for eleven years, yet, he was only thirty-five. A photograph published in Life magazine in 1952, shows Lawrence with other artists affiliated with The Downtown Gallery. All are men, mostly in their sixties or older. Lawrence, who stands alone at the left side of the image, is the only African American in the group.
Young, accomplished, but isolated by age and race from many of the other artists around him, Lawrence was keenly sensitive to and even, at times skeptical of, the reasons for his success. Unlike his African-American mentors (e.g. Charles Alston) or many of his African-American artist colleagues (e.g. Romare Bearden), Lawrence was dark-skinned. He was also without a college education, or a formal, professional arts education, though he did attend the American Artists School for one year. For these reasons and others, Lawrence was embraced by some as a "modern primitive," an "authentic negro" who could better express both the so-called aesthetics and suffering of the Negro people. Writers often celebrated his painting for its "child-like" use of color. One critic, writing in 1943, even wrote of the "kindergarten gaiety of his protest." (M. Riley, "Effective Protests by Lawrence of Harlem, Art Digest 17, 16, May 15, 1943, p. 7) As Lizetta Lefalle-Collins has noted, "White expected Lawrence, like other black artists of the period, to portray particular subjects..." ("The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence's Early Works," Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Seattle, Washington, 2000, p. 122) His situation was not unlike that of prominent African-American actors and entertainers who had to face up to similar Caucasian stereotypes of African-Americans, playing the part of the minstrel or the fool.
Interpreting the child in Ventriloquist as a surrogate for Lawrence himself is not far-fetched. By and large, Lawrence painted subjects with which he could identify, and his work is peppered with self-portraits. Among the Harlem paintings of the late 1930s are images of his family (a single mother and three children). Late in life, he painted images of builders, carpenters, and workmen, all characters with which he identified as an artist. In mid-career, his use of self-portraiture is less explicit, almost allegorical. Take, for example, Magic Man (fig. 2) from 1958 in the Hirshhorn Museum collection, in which a black man holding a wand appears to have produced flowers from a hat. We know the figure in the painting to be Lawrence by the roundness of his shaved head and his crooked teeth, two characteristic features that he used in other self-portraits.
In Ventriloquist, Lawrence depicted himself as a child prodigy overwhelmed by the particulars of his circumstance. Despite the celebratory tone of the setting and the shimmering details (the crystal vases, the sparkling jewelry), the composition is characterized by razor-sharp angles that threaten to wound the child's soft, round head. The lighting is somber. The dummy on the child's lap is dressed in a garish suit reminiscent of a vaudeville performer. The fact that the ventriloquist's teeth are not crooked should not dissuade one from interpreting it as a self-portrait; he is, after all, still a child.
Lawrence was famously understated, soft-spoken, guarded with his emotions. Though he was well read and curious, he did not write; there exist no substantive autobiographical statements or texts that help us to understand his thinking. Rather, much like a ventriloquist, he communicated through his chosen medium of painting. It is only by looking at his paintings that we can understand what he was going through at the time: The most successful black artist at the time was utterly alone.
We are grateful to Mr. Peter Nesbett, the recognized authority of Jacob Lawrence's art and co-author of Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935-1999), A Catalogue Raisonné, Seattle, Washington, 2000, for this catalogue entry.