"Rent Strike" / SOLD!

Lawrence in his later years

The appearance in the market of a fine, vintage Jacob Lawrence gouache-on-paper painting is an uncommon occurance, accompanied by the excitement appropriate to the rare opportunity to acquire an early work by a major figure in American art. In the past decade little more than a half dozen of Lawrence's paintings have surfaced at the major auction houses, and most of these from his later years.

Rent Strike (full title: Because of High Rents and Unfit Conditions Rent Strikes Are Becoming More Frequent) is a painting from Lawrence's Harlem Series which he probably began while working in an unheated, cold-water Harlem studio (where his neighbors were Romare Bearden and Claude McKay.) As with all the paintings in this 1943 series, however, it is a stand-alone work. The recent Catalogue Raisonné erroneously dates the painting to 1942 based on the vintage black and white photograph that was the editors' only access to the image. In May 1943 the painting was exhibited in Lawrence's Harlem Series solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in New York City. The show was well received with ARTnews writing that the paintings were even better than those in the Migration Series (the works that first brought him to national critical attention.)

Rent Strike came at an important period in the life and work of Lawrence. He had just begun the shift from working in tempera (an egg-based medium) to painting with gouache (opaque colors and/or colors mixed with white.) In so doing he continued to utilize his signature style — the juxtaposition of colored shapes one against the another, though now he achieved a flat effect rather than the slightly glossy sheen accompanying tempera. Lawrence had now taken the first steps in consolidating his personal style with the technique he continued to explore for the rest of his life. In composition Rent Strike is primarily gouache with what appear to be tempera highlights.

When, at the encouragement of Alain Locke, Lawrence had joined the Downtown Gallery in December 1940 he became the first black American to be represented by a major New York commercial gallery (which also represented the artists Stuart Davis, John Marion, Ben Shahn and Charles Sheeler.) Despite early recognition Lawrence remained a quiet figure, using his art as his public voice. He has said of his early acclaim that with so much happening so fast the experience was frightening. Nevertheless his commitment to black Americans and social justice was always at the forefront of his work. He received many honorary doctorates in his lifetime, enjoyed numerous teaching posts, served on the advisory board that led to the founding of the National Museum of African Art, and lived to see the near completion of his Catalogue Raisonné. It must be mentioned that through most of Lawrence's long and full creative life he was joined actively by his wife, Gwendolyn Knight, who, as an artist herself, continues to paint.

The current traveling retrospective exhibition (2001-2003) can only add lustre to Lawrence's already stellar reputation, spreading the gospel to the uninitiated through newspaper and TV coverage, school projects and the inevitable spin-off calendars, note cards and T-shirts!

If you have a serious interest in adding to your collection an early, vintage work of great importance by a major American artist of the twentieth century, drop us a line. To our knowledge, there are no earlier Lawrence paintings currently available and few major pre-1946 works are likely to surface. Most of the early paintings are held institutionally or are already promised gifts. Lawrence also spent much of the early 1940s in military service, further reducing his available output.

Parts of the above information adapted from essays by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and Elizabeth Steele in the exhibition catalogue Over the Line.

"Because of High Rents and Unfit Conditions Rent Strikes Are Becoming More Frequent"

Gouache & Tempera(?) on Paper
14  x  21 inches
Signed in the upper left corner, "J Lawrence 43"

The Jacob Lawrence Painting Rent Strike

    The Downtown Gallery, New York City
    Lawrence Allen; New Rochelle, NY;
    Lynette Greenwood (unknown to the Catalogue Raisonné at the time of publication)

    The Downtown Gallery, NYC, exhibition item #29 [originally planned as #27], 1943
    City Art Museum, St. Louis, exhibition item #40, 1944
    Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC April 1945
    Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC, January 1946

    Paintings in Gouache, Jacob Lawrence one-man exhibition of paintings related to Harlem, The Downtown Gallery; May 11 to 29, 1943.  Exhibition Item #29
    Sunday Union and Republic newspaper. Springfield, Massachusetts; May 16, 1943
    A Catalogue Raisonné  by Peter Nesbett & Michelle Dubois.  Seattle: University of Washington Press; 2000.  2 volumes.  The painting is catalogue item #P42-20

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