"ICONIC… ONE OF THE GREAT MODERN FIGURES OF THE 20TH CENTURY": RARE 1948 JACOB LAWRENCE LARGE COVER ILLUSTRATION FOR A “SECOND ANNIVERSARY” 1948 ISSUE OF PEOPLE’S SONGS
(LAWRENCE, Jacob). (Cover Illustration): People's Songs: Second Anniversary. Vol. 3 No. 1 & 2. New York: People's Songs, Feb. & Mar. 1948. Tall slim quarto (8-1/2 by 10-3/4 inches; black & white cover illustration (7 by 7-1/2 inches) .
February/March 1948 issue of People's Songs, the short-lived magazine whose board of directors included Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, this rarely seen issue with a dramatic black-and-white cover by Jacob Lawrence, portraying a farmer surveying a field of sheaves. To Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the art of Jacob Lawrence possesses an exceptional union of "mastery of narrative with the mastery of visual images."
Over a span of 60 years, Jacob Lawrence made the extraordinary history and lives of African Americans visible and "painted poignant social commentary on the effects of racism and bigotry." Born in 1917, his family moved to Harlem in 1930 and he soon studied at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop. In 1935 he began painting scenes of Black life in Harlem and Black history, including works on Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L'Ouverture. In 1941-42, he traveled with his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, across the South and also saw the publication of 26 panels of his Migration of the Negro in Fortune Magazine (1941). In 1943, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard in Florida, he noted "the horrible conditions for Blacks in the South" and planned a "complete a group of drawings" on "How the Negro Views the South." Following WWII, he returned to New York, and in 1947 was "commissioned by Walker Evans, then an editor at Fortune, to execute paintings of… the Southern 'Black Belt.'" Lawrence traveled "to Vicksburg, Mississippi, Tuskegee, Alabama, New Orleans and Memphis," and in 1948, the year of this work's publication, he also completed commissions for the magazines New Republic, Masses and Mainstream (Over the Line, 11, 32-36).
This commanding black-and-white cover work by Lawrence resonates with his vibrant "bold style," one that conveys strength through "physical stature: broad square shoulders… arms that work like machines," and as an expression of his distinctive use of "abstract, formal devices… to heighten the gesture of the central figure." In describing his "conception of the abstraction process" in 1945, Lawrence said: "My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content." In his visual command, which is grounded in Black history and the vitality of Black lives, Lawrence stands as "an iconic figure, one of the great modern figures of the 20th century… one of the first American artists trained in and by the Black community of Harlem" (Over the Line, 123, 11). His "central themes are almost without exception human activity. Figures are magnified, bodies are simplified… there is a particularized iconography of motion: arrested movement and gesture in his stilled figures read as decisive action… a striking use of dynamic compositional devices and complex figural interrelationships" (Wheat, Jacob Lawrence, 189-190). To Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: none among Lawrence's contemporaries combine his "mastery of narrative with the mastery of visual images" (New Negroes, Migration and Cultural Exchange). The Jacob Lawrence cover image, little known and rarely seen, precedes his cover for Freedomways (Winter 1949). This 24-page issue of People's Songs (Vol. 3, No. 1 & 2), which measures 8-1/4 by 10-3/4 inches, contains music and lyrics of over 15 songs, including African American spirituals, and Civil War songs Tom Dooley and Eating Goober Peas.
Lawrence cover bold and fine, intact, detached from text with only trace of rubbing at left edge with three small punchholes not affecting image; complete magazine interior without rear wrapper. A handsome rarely seen Lawrence work.