Lawrence grew up surrounded by the influx of creativity that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and, in step, he began his career painting genre scenes of Harlem streetscapes: “I’m interested in everything which goes on around me,” he told Greene. However, inspired by historian Charles Seifert’s lectures exploring pan-African history at the Harlem YMCA, the burgeoning painter shifted his focus. He started depicting scenes that, while pertaining to his life as a black man and the arc of black history, also contained more universally accessible themes of human strife and resistance.
Lawrence’s first series of history paintings, created in 1937–38, illuminate the life and valor of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture. The artist spent countless hours in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library researching L’Ouverture’s revolutionary activities, later translating them onto 41 arresting canvases that revealed dramatic acts of heroism and battle (canvases filled with careening bodies, blood splatter) alongside quieter moments of contemplation and frustration (the hero cradling his head, staring off into the distance resolutely).
“If at times my productions do not express the conventionally beautiful,” he told curator Ellen Harkins Wheat in an interview, “there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man’s continuous struggle to lift his social position and to add dimension to his spiritual being.”
While many of his subjects centered around black history, Lawrence chose motifs and moments that he believed resonated with all people. “My themes may deal with the Negro but I would like to think of it as dealing with all people, the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward,” he told Greene.
He echoed this sentiment in a 1995 interview with PBS while discussing “The Migration Series”: “I’d like them to experience the beauty of life, the struggle, how people can overcome certain things that could be frustrating or very demeaning,” he explained. “People have the capacity to overcome these obstacles by various means, and this is an example of that…I’m talking about people in general; I’d like it to be a universal statement.”