II

Narratives of African American Art and Identity

Jacob Lawrence

General Toussaint From the Toussaint L'Ouverture Series, 1986

Silk-screen on paper

29.5" x 18.5"


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General Toussaint

Jacob Lawrence was only twenty-one years old when he completed the monumental forty-one panel Toussaint L'Ouverture series in 1938. This series, based upon Toussaint L'Ouverture's epic struggle to emancipate Haiti from the tyranny of the Spanish and the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, set the standard for Lawrence's lifelong dedication to the visual description of black life and history within a narrative context.

Inspired by Harlem's unique social environment, which promoted an awareness of black history generally omitted from mainstream textbooks, Lawrence began to pursue what would become a lifelong inquiry into, and a visual revelation of, the historic accomplishments of people of African descent. After significant research, Lawrence settled on what would be his first monumental series documenting black history: the establishment of the first black Western republic through the heroic efforts of military leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.

Lawrence painted forty-one small tempera-on-white-paper works that chronologically documented the history of the Haitian revolution from Columbus's discovery of the island on December 6, 1492, through Toussaint's victory over the French with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on January 1, 1804. Instead of traditional titles, Lawrence utilized descriptive quotations to function as a verbal description and to accentuate the narrative theme of the series. For instance, General Toussaint L'Ouverture, number twenty in the series, is labeled "statesman and military genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and revered by the blacks."

In 1938 the Toussaint L'Ouverture series premiered during Lawrence's first solo exhibition outside of Harlem at the De Porres Interracial Council headquarters. Since its premier, the series has been exhibited at the Baltimore Museum and at the 1940 Chicago Negro Exposition, and was reproduced in the March 1939 issue of Survey Graphic. The series is currently located in the Amistad Research Center's Aaron Douglas Collection, New Orleans.

Lawrence's original intention in creating the Toussaint L'Ouverture series was to provide African Americans with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and hope during an era when many blacks were experiencing extreme political, economic, and racial difficulties. In 1986, the Spradling Ames Corporation and the Amistad Research Center, in conjunction with Lawrence and silk-screen artist Lou Stovall, decided to publish the series in a silk-screen edition. General Toussaint L'Ouverture was the first painting to be issued within a silk-screen edition and has been described by Driskell as "perhaps Jacob Lawrence's most heroic painting and in the silk-screen edition maybe his most decorative."   T. F.

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