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Jacob Lawrence

Tombstones

1942

Artist

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

Title

Tombstones

Date

1942

Medium

Gouache on paper

Dimensions

Sheet (Irregular): 30 7/8 × 22 13/16 in. (78.4 × 57.9 cm)

Credit line

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase

Accession number

43.14

Object Label

Characteristic of Jacob Lawrence’s work in the 1940s are subjects drawn from the streets and interiors of Harlem. Although he believed that you cannot “tell a story in a single painting,” Lawrence occasionally worked outside the series structure for which he is best known. In uninflected areas of bold color, Tombstones pictures neighbors and residents in front of an apartment building. It encapsulates the full sweep of life within the African American community, from the cradle—the baby carriage at left, the Madonna-like mother and child at right—to the grave, marked at center by the tombstone seller’s wares. Painted a year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and a year before the artist would be inducted into the United States Coast Guard as a steward’s mate, Tombstones displays Lawrence’s unflinching realism regarding the cycle of life and death, in his own community and beyond.

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