Brilliant, saturated orange-red startles our eyes and commands our attention. It is a hot red, to some eyes almost fluorescent, and it may owe its singularity to the medium—egg tempera, notable for its purity and brilliance. Tempera was undergoing an artistic revival in America when Jacob Lawrence was beginning his career and he is one of the finest twentieth-century artists who used the medium. These rectilinear red blocks are played against and interlocked with smaller areas of black, creating a shallow space. Black may suggest recession in shadow or a window into the picture plane. Black is also the color of the ladders, the plumb lines and bobs, and many arms, hats, shoes and a pavement. Brown and gray-brown patches, produced perhaps by brushing gray over the gessoed and primed wood panel, whose grain is still evident, are used for horizontal beams or plywood panels. Blue is also important, for modeling and for the diagonals that animate the basic compositional grid. This simple but sophisticated palette is found often in Lawrence’s paintings and it is memorable.
His masterful art is significant not only for its instantly recognizable color, but for its conviction, for the moral content that may aptly be summarized as aspiration. That aspiration is focused on the insistent claim to equality by black Americans, but it is cast in terms also easily understood by those Americans who saw their status and their promise rise from the depths of the Great Depression through the crucible of the Second World War and into the prosperous post-war period. Lawrence was of that generation. Born in New Jersey, he grew up in Harlem and it was Harlem, specifically, that prepared him for his career, technically and thematically. The intellectual ferment that characterized the Harlem Renaissance was not confined to literature and the young Lawrence was one of its prime beneficiaries.
From his mid-twenties onward most of his paintings were conceived as a series of small-scale works, at first depicting the lives and achievements of historical African-Americans like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. He then applied the series approach to broader subjects like Harlem or the South or the war or his famous “Migration of the Negro.” For half a century he intermittently painted a comprehensive and cohesive series of paintings on the theme of builders, of which the White House painting is one of the earliest.
His experiences in New Deal jobs programs and WPA art projects sowed the seeds of this theme as did his friendship with two cabinetmakers who worked with him at the Harlem Art Workshop. But the subject of building developed into an obsessive desire to show blacks engaged in the process of building—not constructing something specific, identifiable, but building as a communal activity of planning and making, an ongoing intellectual and physical endeavor. The metaphor was not of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, but of cooperative civil action, of working together for a people’s advancement.
He treats this broad theme with compositional rigor. The red and black blocks described above are given movement and order by the decisive left to right gestural diagonals of many of the workmen, stressed by the blue reserved for this purpose. There is also an emotive use of reiteration, for instance the upturned heads of two of the men, or in the two strangely affecting plumb bobs, hanging like hearts against the red ground. And is the pose of the man on the ladder a half-conscious memory of a religious subject—the lowering of Christ from the Cross—a theme of salvation? Jacob Lawrence was a modernist in American art—his painting has been termed “narrative synthetic cubism”—but he was an African-American man who had plumbed the depths of the black experience, and measured the ladders, the means of ascent.
Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 269. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
For a biographical summary see Regina A. Perry, Free Within Ourselves (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1992), 127–32. Peter T. Nescett and Michelle Dubois (eds.), Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (University of Washington Press, 2001), includes an invaluable chapter “The Structure of Narrative: Form and Content in Jacob Lawrence’s Builders Paintings, 1946–1998.”