The Strange and Beautiful World of Jacob Lawrence

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"The Swearing In," 1977, Jacob Lawrence. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite the exhibition’s opening date of April 1, Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor is no joke. An impressive group of nearly 60 works by the 20th-century American painter Jacob Lawrence celebrates a gift from the Kayden Family. With this, the Cantor is now home to one of the largest museum collections of Lawrence’s work.

The exhibition and accompanying catalog cover over five decades of Lawrence’s prolific career as a figurative painter, muralist, illustrator, printmaker and educator. In vivid colors and semi-cubist compositions, Lawrence dedicated his art to portraying facets of the African American experience, from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights movement (click below to see a slideshow of notable Lawrence images).

Notable pieces include "The Ordeal of Alice," a wrenching portrait of a young black girl clutching her school books, shot by arrows like Saint Sebastian, a representation of the racial violence surrounding attempts to integrate public schools. In contrast, Lawrence’s beautiful 1977 painting "University" depicts a utopian mix of races in the hectic rush between college classes. Looking hopefully to the future and respectfully to the past, Lawrence rendered under-appreciated chapters of American history in works like "The Last Journey," an illustration of Harriet Tubman’s heroic wagon journeys across the Canadian border.

In keeping with Lawrence’s long history as an educator, Promised Land inspired a Stanford course in which students designed the installation and wrote exhibition texts. The Kayden collection will continue to serve as a resource for academic engagement with Lawrence’s work and the social and political contexts surrounding his creative output. During the exhibition’s four-month run, the Cantor will host a faculty panel and a lecture by Nate Sloan, connecting music of the Harlem Renaissance with Lawrence’s art.

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Promised Land comes at a crucial moment in Bay Area history. In contrast to the vibrant urban culture Lawrence experienced while living in New York as a teenager, studying under leading figures from the Harlem Renaissance, San Francisco's African American population is rapidly disappearing. Lawrence’s work serves as a provocative backdrop for the overdue and necessary conversations of our time.