This special installation highlights an important recent acquisition of American art—Jacob Lawrence’s The Legend of John Brown graphic series. Consisting of twenty-two silk-screen prints, the portfolio is based on Lawrence’s same-size gouache paintings from 1941 (owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts) that explore the life of the controversial abolitionist. In 1977, when the paintings had become too fragile for public display and access, the Detroit museum commissioned Lawrence to reproduce them as limited-edition screen-prints. Each painting was originally displayed with the artist’s accompanying text, which builds on the powerful visual narrative.

Lawrence’s John Brown series was among the historical epics he produced in the 1930s and 1940s focusing on heroic 19th-century figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as well as the Great Migration of the early 20th-century. As Lawrence explained: “The inspiration to paint the Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown series was motivated by historical events as told to us by the adults of our community . . . the black community. The relating of these events, for many of us, was not only very informative but also most exciting to us, the men and women of these stories were strong, daring and heroic; and therefore we could and did relate to these by means of poetry, song and paint.” It is for these powerful narratives that Lawrence continues to be most celebrated today.

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