Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture

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The Birth of Toussaint

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Jacob Lawrence, The Birth of Toussaint from The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1986. Silk screen on paper, 29 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. The Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene; 2020.022.1

The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986–97, is a rare series of 15 prints depicting the life of the leader of the Haitian Revolution.

An Overnight Sensation

Widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life, as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) became a nationally known figure virtually overnight when his The Migration Series was shown at New York’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. At 24, he became the first Black artist to be represented by a New York gallery. Painted between 1936 and 1938, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture was the artist’s first narrative series, predating other well-known early series such as The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1939, The Life of Harriet Tubman, 1940, and The Migration Series, 1941. By revisiting a liberation movement from more than a century earlier, Lawrence advanced his exploration of Black cultural expression and pride. His decision to revisit these works five decades later demonstrates how deeply the series’ themes resonated for him.

The prints in this series are based on Lawrence’s series of 41 tempera paintings by the same name, completed in 1938 and now in the collection of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans. The artist returned to the series nearly fifty years later, selecting 15 of the original paintings to rework and translate into larger dynamic silkscreen prints published by the Amistad Research Center and printed by Workshop, Inc., Washington, D.C. (Lou Stovall, master printer) between 1986 and 1997. Because these were printed and sold individually rather than as a series, complete sets are scarce.

Foregrounding Black Resistance

This series manifests Lawrence’s remarkable ability to poignantly chronicle little-known histories. Haiti was the first republic in the world to be founded by former slaves. An important fact on its own terms, this history and Toussaint L’Ouverture’s role in this quest for freedom gains a new level of relevance today within the context of the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

The artist’s strong angular figuration and bold use of color expressively depict L’Ouverture’s struggle against slavery and oppression. Born into slavery in 1743, L’Ouverture was an early participant in the rebellion, eventually rising to become commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army and leading the campaign in 1800 to draft Haiti’s first democratic constitution. L’Ouverture was arrested by Napoléon Bonaparte’s troops in 1802 and sent to Paris, where he was imprisoned and died a year later, shortly before Haiti became a republic in 1804.

Lawrence’s work is held in public collections throughout the country. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture joins two other works by Lawrence in the Lunder Collection, Builders #1 (1968) and Often Three Families Share One Toilet (1943). An additional work, Protest Rally (1965), was acquired by the museum in 1973. These works reflect the socially engaged manner in which Lawrence depicted contemporary African American life at midcentury. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture highlights his interest in histories of Black liberation. This powerful series of prints, in tandem with David Driskell’s Soul X (1968) and Elizabeth Catlett’s Sister (1971)—additional works recently added to the Lunder Collection—foreground African American expressions of resistance, solidarity, and identity in the history of American art. The series expands the geographic boundaries of the study of American art to include the Caribbean and the Atlantic World of the eighteenth century.

Philanthropists and longtime Colby College benefactors Peter and Paula Lunder purchased and donated the prints in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene. This gift is the latest example of how the Lunders have helped to transform the Colby College Museum of Art in profound ways. Their 2013 gift of the Lunder Collection, featuring more than 500 extraordinary works by some of the most significant American artists and considered one of the most important private collections of its kind, was among the largest donations of artwork ever made to an American college. Four years later, in 2017, they followed it with another gift to the museum of more than 1,000 additional works.

PLEASE NOTE: Not all works in the Colby Museum collection are on view at any given time. If you have a question about works on view, please call 207-859-5600 prior to visiting.