Jacob Lawrence, “John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennessee and there make raids on surrounding plantations, freeing slaves,” 1974-1977, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Museum purchase: Gift of Jeff and Mary Weinberg, 2020.0068.14.
A new exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence explores the life and death of abolitionist John Brown as interpreted by acclaimed Black modernist Jacob Lawrence. “Jacob Lawrence and the Legend of John Brown” features a series of 22 prints displayed in its entirety for the first time at the Spencer Museum since it was added to the collection in 2020 through a gift from Jeff and Mary Weinberg.
Jacob Lawrence is best known for his work depicting everyday life for Black Americans. In 1942, when segregation was still legal, he became the first African American whose artwork was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence originally produced “The Legend of John Brown” as a series of paintings in 1941, but they became too fragile to display due to instability of the gouache paint he used. In 1974, he collaborated with printers to translate these paintings to screen prints.
Lawrence’s series includes events from Brown’s time in Kansas, where he first used violence in his quest to rid the country of slavery. Rather than depict these violent attacks against slaveholders, Lawrence focuses instead on Brown’s fundraising and organizing for the abolitionist cause.
Kate Meyer, the Spencer Museum’s curator for works on paper, noted the historical moments connected to this series provide a fascinating lens through which to understand race and identity in the United States.
“Jacob Lawrence is reflecting on John Brown’s actions of the 1840s in 1941, during segregation. His paintings prove so powerful that he agrees to recreate the series as prints in the 1970s after the Civil Rights Movement. These images and stories about John Brown have remained relevant for well over a century, and their explorations of race, faith, and violence remain so today,” Meyer said.
“Jacob Lawrence and the Legend of John Brown” will remain on view through June 16, 2024. Related events include a gallery talk by Meyer on March 20 and a Q&A with John Brown impersonator Kerry Altenbernd on May 9.
Admission to the Spencer Museum of Art is always free. Free parking is available on the first level of the Mississippi Street garage across the street from the Museum. Check in at the Museum’s Welcome Desk with your license plate number for parking validation.