Jacob Lawrence created The Legend of John Brown, his fifth series of history paintings in gouache, in 1941. In 1974, the Detroit Institute of Art, which owns the original paintings, commissioned Lawrence to produce an edition of screen prints of the series, which he completed in collaboration with Ives-Sillman, Inc. (New Haven, CT) in 1977. The Davis presents the full print portfolio, purchased in 2015, for the first time.
With a style inspired by modern art, African art, print journalism, and popular film, Lawrence explained that he worked in series because: “I wanted to tell a lot of things. This was the only way I could work and tell the complete story.” The artist carefully researched John Brown, combining written scholarship with oral history and popular culture surrounding the white abolitionist icon. Brown advocated for violent uprisings, and he was executed for his failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859. A popular Civil War song memorialized him, and he remained a folk hero among African Americans for generations. In the 1930s and 1940s, African American artists, intellectuals, and political leaders made pilgrimages to Harper’s Ferry and to his grave, while white historians of the time often dismissed Brown as an insane radical. Previous painters had romanticized and sanitized his anti-slavery crusade. Lawrence instead explored the complexity of Brown’s biography, providing Brown’s life-long fierce Christian piety as context for his militant devotion to the abolition of slavery during the last twenty-two years of his life.
Curated by Amanda Gilvin, Assistant Curator. The exhibition is supported by The Marjorie Schechter Bronfman '38 and Gerald Bronfman Endowment for Works on Paper.