Jacob Lawrence

The American Struggle

MAR 5 – MAY 23 2021


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Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle questions the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history. This exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958, and SAM will be its only West Coast venue. These modernist paintings chronicle pivotal moments from the American Revolution through to westward expansion and feature Black, female, and Native protagonists as well as the founders of the United States. Lawrence interprets the democratic debates that defined the early nation and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the Struggle series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

The individuals who populate of Lawrence’s compositions are given voice through quotations and excerpts from his thorough research developing  the Struggle series. The title of the panels are key to understanding how Lawrence has envisioned a more all-embracing American history. Whereas Lawrence quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson from a letter to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the title to Panel 18, he places their Shoshone translator and guide Sacajawea and her brother, Shoshone Chief Cameahwait, at the center of the composition. His use of a statement from George Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman as the title of Panel 10, like the painting itself, shifts focus away from Washington in the crossing of the Delaware River, and onto the unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War. The descriptive title of Panel 12 prompts a closer look at its central figure, Margaret Cochran Corbin, the first woman buried with full military honors at West Point.

Within the exhibition you will also see artwork from today’s youth addressing the ongoing American struggle. Selected by SAM’s Teen Arts Group from an open call for submission, these works consider the themes of Lawrence’s 30-panel series and respond to the prompt: “What do you imagine the 31st panel of the Struggle Series would depict today?”

One of the greatest narrative artists of the 20th century, Lawrence’s complex compositions and contextual titles center perspectives that are often notes in the margins of America’s beginnings. Lawrence spent two years painting the Struggle series. Between 1954 and 1956, America was reckoning with many of its contradictions. These 30 panels are heavily informed by the contemporary issues of Lawrence’s time as they address the history of what it means to be an American. Viewing this rarely exhibited series today is a reminder of shared histories during this current divisive chapter in America, where the struggle for freedom and justice marches on.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

National Endowment for the Arts

Presenting Sponsor


Lead Sponsor


Supporting Sponsor


Generous Support
Bette and David Sprague Exhibition Endowment

Jacob Lawrence


Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, to parents who migrated from the American South to the North during World War I. He was the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York gallery (the Downtown Gallery) and the first to receive sustained mainstream recognition in the United States. He exhibited regularly in New York throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, when many African American artists were denied professional consideration. He has been the subject of numerous major retrospective exhibitions and his work is represented in hundreds of museum collections. A devoted teacher most of his life, Lawrence accepted a tenured position at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1971 and retired as a professor emeritus in 1986. Lawrence was actively painting until several weeks before his death, on June 9, 2000.

The Contemporary Struggle

Derrick Adams

Derrick Adams’s (b. 1970) multidisciplinary practice probes the influence of popular culture on self-image, and the relationship between man and monument. Adams is deeply immersed in questions of how African American experiences intersect with art history, American iconography, and consumerism. He describes his two works in The American Struggle—Saints March and Jacob’s Ladder—as a way to “contribute to conversations that expand on histories that are both Black American and American overall.” Saints March is a video considering the original American dance form of tap and contemporary street tap performance, while Jacob’s Ladder brings Lawrence’s personal archives into the gallery through a sculptural installation that lends optimism to the concept of struggle.

Bethany Collins

Bethany Collins (b. 1984) is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptually driven work is fueled by a critical exploration of how race and language interact. Her work in the exhibition titled America: A Hymnal is an immersive audio experience within a chapel space where six layered voices sing different versions of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The altar object within the gallery is a book containing the sheet music to 100 versions of this well-known song which has changed and been used for various purposes since it was first penned as “God Save the Queen” in Great Britain. Collins describes the book as “100 dissenting versions of what it means to be American, bound together.”

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. A trained photographer, Thomas incorporates mirrors and retroreflective vinyl to challenge perspectives and explore often overlooked historical narratives. My Father Died for This Country Too/I Am an American Also in this exhibition is an example of his work that is activated by flash photography. This role reversal makes the viewer create the image and asks who is included or erased in the biased storytelling of history. Rich Black Specimen #460, Thomas’ sculptural contribution to the exhibition, is a life-size interpretation of a symbol used in runaway slave advertisements in the 19th century.

Plan your Visit

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To allow for reduced contact and physical distancing, everyone will need to get tickets online in advance of their visit. Capacity will be limited and ticketing will be timed. Tickets to Jacob Lawrence include access to the collection galleries and Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. With fewer visitors in the museum, you’ll have an intimate art viewing experience.

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Learn Online

image of a hand holding a smartphone with SAM tour on screen

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle Smartphone Tour
A smartphone tour is available on your own device for free. Select a thematic tour or enter the number next to selected artworks to access multimedia content exploring the archival sources that inspired Lawrence in creating the Struggle series. Additionally, there is an audio tour of verbal descriptions of the artworks for low/no vision visitors. Free SAM wifi is available at the museum. Please use headphones in the galleries.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle Interactive Experience
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum. For best experience, please view on desktop in Chrome or IE. You may need to zoom in or out in your browser.

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Advisory Committee

Seattle Art Museum convened a group of advisors, from diverse backgrounds and affiliations, to provide guidance throughout the exhibition planning process.

Cleo Barnett, Executive Director at Amplifier; Rebecca Cesspooch, Northern Ute/Assiniboine/Nakota visual artist and educator; Lauren Holloway, Educator at Franklin High School; Dovey MartinezVisual artist, SAM Emerging Arts Leader program alum; Delbert Richardson, Founder of The Unspoken Truths American History Traveling Museum; Lucia Santos, Contributor to American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence, SAM Teen Arts Group (TAG) member; Carletta Carrington WilsonLiterary and visual artist; Inye Wokoma, Visual artist, Co-Founder of Wa Na Wari