Explore Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture

The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a rare series of 15 prints by Jacob Lawrence, manifests the artist’s remarkable ability to poignantly chronicle little-known histories. Haiti was the first republic in the world to be founded by former slaves. An important fact on its own terms, this history and Toussaint Louverture’s role in this quest for freedom gains a new level of relevance today within the context of the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

The artist’s strong angular figuration and bold use of color expressively depict Louverture’s struggle against slavery and oppression. Born into slavery in 1743, Louverture was an early participant in the rebellion, eventually rising to become commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army and leading the campaign in 1800 to draft Haiti’s first democratic constitution. Louverture was arrested by Napoléon Bonaparte’s troops in 1802 and sent to Paris, where he was imprisoned and died a year later, shortly before Haiti became a republic in 1804.

The Prints

All works are from the Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene.

The Birth of Toussaint from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986. Silk screen on paper, 29 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. 2020.022.1

Jacob Lawrence’s parents fled the south as part of the Great Migration, an exodus of African Americans to northern urban centers that began in 1916. In 1930, his family relocated from New Jersey to Harlem, where Lawrence encountered and then contributed to the reclamation of neglected histories: “we grew up being told about these great black heroes and heroines—Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and so forth.” For this, his first research-based project, Lawrence chose to focus not on the history of the United States but instead on the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Here he introduces Louverture in a tender and universal nativity scene. 

The Coachman from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1990. Silkscreen on paper 29 ½ x 19 in. 2020.022.2

Louverture was born into slavery on Saint-Domingue’s Bréda plantation (early documents refer to him as Toussaint from Bréda), where, as Lawrence’s caption notes, he worked under the overseer Bayou de Libertas. Lawrence recalled hearing a lecture about Haiti when he was thirteen. Later, he immersed himself in the historical literature on this subject at the New York library branch that became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His early artist statements emphasize this rigorous study, mirroring the qualities he ascribes to Louverture. Among the texts he consulted was The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a book by the English minister John Relly Beard first published in 1853 from which Lawrence borrows his title, including the variant spelling of the protagonist’s surname.

Strategy from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1994. Silkscreen on paper, 22 x 32 in. 2020.022.3

Dondon from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1992. Silkscreen on paper, 19 3/4 x 29 1/4 in. 2020.022.4

The Capture from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1987. Silkscreen on paper, 29 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. 2020.022.5

General Toussaint from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986. Silkscreen on paper, 30 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. 2020.022.6

These prints are significantly larger than the paintings on which they are based, and this depiction exhibits the formidable solemnity of a classical bust or presidential portrait. Indeed, Louverture achieved such international renown during his lifetime that a prominent European publication in 1802 voted him the world’s most significant figure, and one early biography immediately ran through four printings. Lawrence examined many historical illustrations of Louverture, though it is likely that none were drawn from life. Whereas sympathetic abolitionists sometimes lightened his skin color, Lawrence accentuates its darkness. As scholars have noted, his characterization of Louverture evokes the self-styling of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born leader of the first American Black nationalist movement who was based in Harlem in the 1920s.

The Opener from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1997. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 in. 2020.022.7

The March from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1995. Silkscreen on paper, 19 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. 2020.022.8

Lawrence’s graphic acumen is on full display in depicting the lockstep advance of Louverture’s army. When he transferred the paintings into print many of his revisions consisted of minor modifications to the palette or adjustments in compositional emphasis. Here he sets the scene against a much lighter sky. Silkscreen’s broad, flat colors emphasize the unity of the revolutionary forces, but Lawrence distinguishes certain figures by adding white contour lines to their profiles. In the printed version, he also introduces red to the foliage, creating a chromatic rhyme with the soldiers’ uniforms and alluding, perhaps, to the blood already shed in these fields under slavery and the conflicts yet to come.

St. Marc from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1994. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. 2020.022.9

Contemplation from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1993. Silkscreen on paper, 30 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. 2020.022.10

Louverture, as Lawrence depicts him, is a man of thought and action alike. All too aware of the necessity of literacy as a tool for political self-expression and negotiation, he dedicated himself to the study of French, his third language after West African Fon and Haitian Kreyòl (Creole). He amassed a library with volumes devoted to statecraft and political history. Contemplation also foreshadows Louverture’s later authorship of a work often called a memoir but intended as a 16,000-word petition for a public trial. He wrote this document while in prison after his 1802 capture by a French general acting under orders from Napoléon Bonaparte.

Flotilla from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1996. Silkscreen on paper, 20 x 30 in. 2020.022.11

The Burning from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1997. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 3/4 in. 2020.022.12

Toussaint at Ennery from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1989. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/4 x 30 in. 2020.022.13

Deception from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1997. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 29 1/2 in. 2020.022.14

To Preserve their Freedom from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1988. Silkscreen on paper, 20 1/2 x 30 1/2 in. 2020.022.15

Lawrence concludes this condensed print series with an image of resistance, as though to stress the unfinished business entailed in the preservation of liberty. By contrast, the original painting series culminated with Toussaint’s 1803 death in a French prison, where he had been sent by Napoléon Bonaparte, and Haiti’s 1804 declaration of independence from France. With this proclamation, the nation became the first Black republic in the world. Here Lawrence adds a brilliant red wound to the chest of one of the revolutionaries, further dramatizing the conflict. As he expressed it, “Fifty years later, when you are asked to transform an image into a print, a lot has happened in your thinking . . . so it becomes a new work.”