The American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) enjoyed a career retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum in 1986. Early the same year, popular uprisings in Haiti led to the ousting of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Lawrence, as if in response to this convergence of events, revisited paintings he had completed fifty years earlier and adapted them for this series of fifteen prints.
In 1937 and 1938, the twenty-year-old Lawrence created forty-one tempera paintings based on the life of the eighteenth-century Haitian revolutionary general Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). Born into slavery on the Caribbean island then called Saint Domingue, Louverture led the populace of this French colony to independence. As a symbol of Black liberation and self-determination for Afro-diasporic populations, Louverture has had enduring resonance. “I didn’t do it just as a historical thing,” Lawrence reflected on his choice of subject matter in 1940. “We don’t have physical slavery, but an economic slavery,” he added.
To make his artwork more accessible, Lawrence later re-envisioned these paintings as silkscreens, prints generated by forcing ink through stencils. He produced these at the rate of one to three a year from 1986 to 1997, working out of sequence, so the prints were sold individually in editions of one hundred or one hundred and twenty impressions. This installation of the recently acquired print series reflects the order of the paintings and includes Lawrence’s original captions. Here he narrows his scope considerably, opening with the birth of Louverture instead of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landing on the island, and thoroughly recentering the narrative in Black resistance; only one print features white figures.
Lawrence’s exploration of “our continuous struggle for liberty,” and his interrogation of the writing of history, reverberate in the accompanying sculpture. Martin Puryear’s Up and Over (2014) invokes the liberty cap, a signifier of freedom since Roman antiquity. In Haiti, this emancipatory motif was incorporated into the coat of arms during the revolution. It crowns a palm tree on the nation’s current flag, which was adopted in 1986.
Images: (Top right): Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Photo by Carl Van Vechten; (Bottom right): Martin Puryear, Up and Over, 2014, cast ductile iron (Ed. 1/3), 18 5/8 x 26 1/2 x 12 3/4 in. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund; 2015.003.
The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture manifests Jacob Lawrence’s remarkable ability to chronicle little-known histories. This narrative continues to gain resonance within the context of the ongoing struggle for racial justice.
Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture is curated by Diana Tuite, Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with an accompanying collection installation by Justin McCann, Lunder Curator of American Art and Whistler Studies. Philanthropists and longtime Colby College benefactors Peter and Paula Lunder purchased a complete set of The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture for the Lunder Collection and donated it in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene. The Lunder Collection, featuring more than 1,500 extraordinary works by some of the most significant American artists, is among the largest donations of artwork ever made to an American college.
Images: (Banner): The Opener (detail) from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1997. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 in. The Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene; 2020.022.7; (Explore): The Burning (detail) from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1997. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 3/4 in. 2020.022.12.