The exhibition at Seattle Art Museum is a rare chance to see all of the panels together, to celebrate the centennial of Jacob Lawrence’s birth and to appreciate the small but powerful paintings chronicling the great migration of Southern blacks to the North.

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Seattle knew Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) as a painter and teacher who arrived at the University of Washington in 1971 with his style and his reputation already fully established.

How early did he find his artistic voice?

When he was barely out of his teens.

His series of paintings chronicling the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture were created between 1936 and 1938. Similar series on abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman followed within two years. The 60 panels of his “Migration Series,” featured in Seattle Art Museum’s “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series,” were completed in 1941, when he was in his early 20s.

In the “Migration Series,” Lawrence looked to an event that had happened in his own lifetime: the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that started during World War I. The 60 tempera paintings made a splash well beyond the usual limits of the art world.

Twenty-six were excerpted in a handsome four-page spread in Fortune magazine in 1941. The series itself was purchased by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., (the odd-numbered panels) and the Museum of Modern Art (even-numbered). Before going to its new homes, it went on a two-year tour to 15 venues in the U.S., culminating in a long run at MoMA in late 1944. They were reunited for a six-city tour in 1993-95.

IF YOU GO

‘Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through April 23. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $12.95-$19.95 (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org).

SAM’s show offers a rare opportunity to see them all together again. A fine new catalog has been copublished by MoMA and the Phillips Collection. At a media preview for the show, Seattle Art Museum curator Patti Junker said there hadn’t been plans for it to travel. But SAM persuaded the two East Coast institutions to lend the works, in part by noting that this was a chance to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lawrence’s birth in the city he called home for the last three decades of his life.

When you walk into the exhibit, the first thing that strikes you is the modest scale of the paintings. Each one measures only 12 by 18 inches. Their captions were Lawrence’s starting point, and they’re as spare as can be (especially in the revised versions he wrote for the series’ 1990s tour).

Panel 1 shows the exodus already under way, as crowds line up to buy train tickets to Chicago, New York and St. Louis. Its full text: “During World War I there was a great migration north by Southern African Americans.”

Lawrence, in subsequent panels, outlines the reasons for the migration: labor shortages in northern cities, catastrophic floods and boll-weevil pestilence in the South and, of course, virulent racial prejudice against blacks. One powerful panel, showing a figure huddled and grieving beneath a skeletal tree from which an empty noose hangs, reads in its entirety: “There were lynchings.”

A 1941 photograph of Jacob Lawrence by Kenneth F. Space welcomes visitors to his “Migration Series,” 60 panels on display at the Seattle Art Museum through April 23. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
A 1941 photograph of Jacob Lawrence by Kenneth F. Space welcomes visitors to his “Migration Series,” 60 panels on display at the Seattle Art Museum through April 23. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The North was not utopia. Lawrence acknowledges the social barriers the migrants met with from whites and, as one panel notes, from a small African-American elite in the cities. Still, the new arrivals gained access to education and the right to vote, and even their crowded urban dwellings were an improvement on the shacks of their native South.

Much of Lawrence’s appeal, as SAM director Kimerly Rorschach noted at the preview, resides in “the tension between the realism and the abstraction.” He uses the bare minimum of line, color and shape to evoke a whole range of human experiences, whether personal or communal.

Lawrence worked on all 60 panels simultaneously, applying the darkest colors first, and then progressing from russets and gray-blues to bright yellows and whites. His renderings of the physical and societal confines the migrants were escaping couldn’t be more oppressive. His scenes of actual travel, by contrast, have a rising energy to them. Again and again, the paintings lead your eye toward the top of the painting – and, by implication, to the destination ahead. The panels titled “The trains were crowded with migrants” and “The migration gained in momentum” are good examples of this.

This panel from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” shows a railroad station packed with people waiting for tickets to travel to the North. Millions of African Americans migrated to cities from the rural South, starting around World War I. (John Wronn)
This panel from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” shows a railroad station packed with people waiting for tickets to travel to the North. Millions of African Americans migrated to cities from the rural South, starting around World War I. (John Wronn)

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In panel after panel, groups of figures, tilting forward, march intrepidly toward their goal. Panel 46, with its image of a steep staircase in a Northern labor camp with a glimpse of a moonlit night-sky at its top, somehow conjures both the confines and the aspirations of the migrants — this, without even showing a single human figure. (Lawrence, here and elsewhere, is a master of suggestion, letting us fill in his blanks for ourselves.)

What the migrants found in Northern cities wasn’t all had hoped for or expected. As a panel titled “Housing was a serious problem” shows, they may have exchanged one kind of servitude for another. It’s an image of cots crowded into a room combining to resemble prison bars.

Still, the cities offered opportunities the rural South could not.

In the last panel in the series, “And the migrants kept coming,” the sense of ascending toward a goal is transformed into a sense of arrival. It’s a group portrait with dozens of figures candidly facing the viewer, unlike almost all the preceding images, in which the figures have their back to you.

“Here we are,” they seem to say, “an integral part of the American experience, just like you.”