The Phillips Collection Presents Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle

By Editorial Team on June 21, 2021

Sat, 26 June 2021 - Sun, 19 September 2021

Jacob Lawrence, Panel 1: … Is Life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? – Patrick Henry, 1775, 1955, Egg tempera on hardboard, 12 x 16 in., Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
On View: June 26 – September 19, 2021

As part of the museum’s centennial celebrations, The Phillips Collection presents Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, the first reunion since 1958 of the celebrated artist’s 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People. The exhibition includes two panels discovered in 2020 and 2021, offering a rare opportunity to reconstitute the lost narrative of the series and with it a radically integrated view of American history. The five-stop national exhibition tour organized by the Peabody Essex Museum culminates at the Phillips from June 26 to September 19, 2021.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. Early in his career, he developed his unique multi-panel format and painted narratives portraits of the lives of famed African Americans. In 1942, Duncan Phillips purchased the odd-numbered panels of his acclaimed Migration Series (1940-41), depicting the mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North between the World Wars—an epic 60-panel series that has remained a cornerstone of The Phillips Collection. At the onset of the civil rights era, Lawrence set out to create a series that depicts, in his words, “the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” The result of years of research, Lawrence’s revolutionary, yet lesser-known, 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954-56) shares pivotal moments in the American Revolution and the early decades of the republic. Featuring the words and actions of founding fathers, enslaved people, women, and Native Americans as captions for each panel, the paintings invite a new way of chronicling marginalized histories about America’s founding. Using dynamic compositions and vivid colors to represent scenes of conflict and movement, Lawrence’s series reimagines the American experience.

Contemporary works that explore aspects of American history by Derrick Adams (b. 1970), Bethany Collins (b. 1983), and Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) further enrich this reunion of Lawrence’s Struggle series. By placing Lawrence’s Struggle series in dialogue with contemporary art that explores ongoing debates about democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion, this exhibition reevaluates Lawrence’s art for 21st-century audiences.

“We are grateful to Harvey Ross, a Phillips trustee and owner of half the panels of the Struggle series, for his foresight and dedication in championing the presentation and study of this important body of work,” says Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski. “Given the Phillips’s long and cherished history teaching, studying, and presenting the art of Jacob Lawrence, it is an honor to share this momentous exhibition with audiences during our centennial year.”

“As the national conversation on race continues to call attention to stories of injustice and struggle, it is fitting that this series toured the country, culminating at the Phillips,” explains Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay. “Confronting all aspects of American history and diverse groups’ contributions to our nation, like Lawrence does in these artworks, is a crucial part of our racial reckoning.”

“While Lawrence is celebrated for his early epic Migration Series—a cornerstone of The Phillips Collection—this rare reunion of his equally important though lesser-known Struggle series shines a critical light on the evolution of Lawrence’s dynamic mature style and philosophy at mid-century,” notes Elsa Smithgall, Senior Curator. “The exciting discovery of Panels 16 and 28 brings a fortuitous twist to this exhibition, adding a more fulsome understanding of the complex visual and conceptual underpinnings of Lawrence’s radical retelling of American history.”

Moreover, just as Lawrence’s Struggle series had profound meaning at the time it was made during the height of the civil rights era, the panels shown with contemporary art remind us that the struggles of the American people endure as hope burns bright.

Panel 16 was discovered in October 2020, and Panel 28 was discovered in March 2021, both in private collections. The Phillips is proud to have partnered with the Peabody Essex Museum and the Seattle Art Museum to conserve this artwork so it has joined the tour for its final stops in Seattle and Washington, DC. Three works from the series, Panel 14, Panel 20, and Panel 29, remain missing.

“I therefore hope that these paintings when completed will serve in some small way to further enlighten those who come in contact with them of the struggles, contributions, and ingenuity of the American people.”—Jacob Lawrence


The exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

The exhibition is co-curated by Elizabeth Hutton Turner, former Senior Curator of The Phillips Collection, currently University Professor, Modern and American Art, University of Virginia, and Austen Barron Bailly, formerly PEM’s Curator of American Art and now Chief Curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with support from Lydia Gordon, PEM’s Associate Curator.

Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall is The Phillips Collection’s coordinating curator for this exhibition.

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

Made possible by The Phillips Collection’s Exhibitions Endowment Fund, which is generously supported by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, Michelle and Glenn Engelmann, Robert and Debra Drumheller, and The Marion F. Goldin Charitable Fund.

About the Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, was founded in 1921. The museum houses one of the world’s most distinguished Impressionist and American modern art collections, and continues to grow its collection with important contemporary voices. Its distinctive building combines extensive new galleries with the former home of its founder, Duncan Phillips. The Phillips’s impact spreads nationally and internationally through its diverse and experimental special exhibitions and events, including its award-winning education programs for educators, students, and adults; dynamic Phillips Music series; and popular meditation and Phillips after 5 events. The museum contributes to global dialogues with events like Conversations with Artists and Artists of Conscience. The Phillips Collection values its community partnerships with the University of Maryland—the museum’s nexus for scholarly exchange and interdisciplinary collaborations—and THEARC—the museum’s satellite campus in Southeast DC. The Phillips Collection is a private, non-government museum, supported primarily by donations.

The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street NW.