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How painter Jacob Lawrence reframed early American history with 'Struggle'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, we look at the struggle of painter Jacob Lawrence.

In the 1950s, amid the McCarthy hearings and the launch of the civil rights movement, Lawrence decided to frame early American history as he saw it.

Now his sprawling series, called Struggle, has been reassembled at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the first stop on a national tour.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH Boston takes us there, as part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: In 1954, the late painter Jacob Lawrence began a series he called Struggle: From the History of the American people.

The most famous black artist of his time, he originally thought he might depict African-American struggle. He soon reconsidered.

Derrick Adams: When there's issues of unrest or struggle, it's a story that is an effect of a whole society, not a small group within a society.

Jared Bowen: Over two years, Lawrence painted a series of 30 panels, from Patrick Henry's struggle to reconcile the coexistence of liberty and slavery to the harrowing push for Westward Expansion.

Artist Derrick Adams has been taking the panels in one at a time, including this depiction of a slave revolt in 1810.

Derrick Adams: The way the body is kind of like stretched across the plain of the painting, when you look at the work, there's no space to not acknowledge the scene.

Jared Bowen: Here at the Peabody Essex Museum, these panels are together for the first time in more than 60 years.

Austen Barron Bailly: We assembled, and tracked, and researched, and investigated. It's been a little bit like being a detective.

Jared Bowen: Austen Barron Bailly is one of the show's curators. Six years in the making, the exhibition features most of the original works.

Austen Barron Bailly: There are panels that remain completely unlocated, and those are either in private hands or lost.

Jared Bowen: The whereabouts of five paintings is unknown, although the hunt is on. This one, panel 19, turned up at a New York auction as Bailly was working on the show.

That must have been ridiculously exciting.

Austen Barron Bailly: It was incredibly exciting. These are the accidents of history that have informed this show, that they even informed Lawrence's work.

Jared Bowen: A darling of the modern art world, Lawrence was 37 when he began Struggle. Almost 15 years earlier, he created the Migration series, a critically acclaimed effort featuring the move of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North.

Austen Barron Bailly: The artist Steve Locke, who contributed to our catalog, likes to describe the Migration series as kind of his greatest hit, but the struggle series as the better record.

Jared Bowen: By the time he put paint to canvas, Lawrence had spent more than five years researching American history, combing through historical records and teasing out quotations that would serve as his prompt.

Austen Barron Bailly: He looked for the voices of founding fathers. He looked for these actions that people took in the struggle to build our democracy. And he offers it up as a way, through these incredible paintings, to draw you in.

Jared Bowen: Lawrence's take on history is an intimate one. Where Paul Revere gave us the Boston Massacre in full-blown battle, Lawrence delivered us straight to its first victim.

Where Emanuel Leutze gave us a valiant George Washington crossing the Delaware, Lawrence delivers despair.

Austen Barron Bailly: Cold, suffering. Choppy weather, hints of blood, robed men trying to stay warm, hands, emphasizing these hands trying to row across silently, steadfastly. And there's no sense of who, if any, of these people would be George Washington.

Jared Bowen: Well, it's struggle. It's not heroism as we might know it here.

Austen Barron Bailly: Exactly. And I think, from Lawrence's perspective, the heroism is the collective endeavor.

Jared Bowen: Each panel is relatively small, just 12 by 16 inches, and Lawrence routinely wrote notes about his process on the backs of the works, all as it related to struggle.

Derrick Adams: I think about someone like Jacob at a time where artists like him had very little opportunity to experience themselves as an artist.

Jared Bowen: A widely exhibited artist himself, Derrick Adams says Lawrence, who died in 2000, has influenced his career more than any other painter.

He points out the two bear a strikingly similar resemblance. And he even once escorted Lawrence around New York's Pratt Institute, where Adams was a student.

Derrick Adams: I felt like he was a Jacob to me than a Mr. Lawrence.

I don't know. It just seemed like he was very, like, approachable, and very modest in personality. I felt like we were more -- just more in kinship.

Jared Bowen: The exhibition closes with an installation Derrick Adams created after sifting through Lawrence's archives. It's an imaginary studio, filled with photographs never before shown publicly.

The chair is Lawrence's, oriented, it seems, for quiet contemplation, and facing a ladder, perhaps lifting Lawrence out of struggle.

Derrick Adams: The ladder, I think, has to do with just the idea of the plight, his career, the plight of humanity, Jacob, you know, starting from this very familiar place and being seated and thinking, and then the part of kind of ascending. He's no longer with us.

But there's things that kind of give us a bigger picture of who Jacob was.

Jared Bowen: Which is of an artist defined, in part, by struggle.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Salem, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: Clearly worth taking a look.

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