Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-200)

Black Cowboys, ca. 1967
Casein tempera on illustration board
20 x 30 in.
Museum Purchase

One of the first African American artists to achieve widespread national acclaim, the painter Jacob Lawrence was a keen observer of American culture and a committed storyteller. While still in his teens, he took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, which operated as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, and later studied at the Harlem Community Art Center. Lawrence both learned from and participated in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, during which African American art, literature, music, dance, and social commentary flourished. Developing a distinct, modernist approach to history painting, he dedicated himself to illustrating the stories of blacks from the Civil War up to his own day.

Lawrence animated these stories with expressively simplified and energetic figures executed in rich, often primary, colors, and he worked frequently in a series format--each narrative advancing through successive paintings. The series that first brought him national attention and remains his most famous project was The Migration of the Negro, which he completed in 1941 at age 23. In sixty small paintings, it told of the large-scale movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after World War I.

In addition to producing forthrightly historical narratives, Lawrence explored broader, more symbolic themes. He was especially intrigued by labor in its many forms, and he frequently portrayed people working--for example, doing laundry, teaching,
painting, repairing radios, mining, shelving library books, cooking, or performing surgery. In the late 1960s, he focused particularly on scenes of construction workers, subject matter to which he repeatedly returned until the end of his life. Collectively known as The Builders, these paintings of men and women working with wood and tools of the building trade are among the artist’s most iconic images.

Black Cowboys reflects Lawrence’s dedication to both history painting and labor imagery. Although their contributions are often overlooked, African Americans were instrumental in settling the American West, a fact the artist celebrates in this depiction of two black men driving cattle. A 1998 letter from his art dealer to the Ulrich indicates that Lawrence wanted the painting to live in a museum that had geographic and historic links to its content. (1) No doubt he considered Wichita, which first thrived as a cattle town, to be a fitting home for this colorful and lively work.

--Emily Stamey, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Joseph S. Cooper to Donald Knaub, Director, Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, June 17, 1998, Ulrich Museum of Art object file.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-200), 'Black Cowboys,' ca. 1967. Casein tempera on illustration board, 20 by 30 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase