From Haiti With Love

A Harlem artist’s collection, and an inspiration that still resonates.

When artist Jacob Lawrence was coming of age during the Harlem Renaissance, prominent military figures sharing his skin color were largely absent from his history classes. He made an effort to fill that gap, searching through library books until he discovered General Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L’Ouverture series, no. 20: General Toussaint L’Ouverture, statesman and military Genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks. 1938
Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L’Ouverture series, no. 20: General Toussaint L’Ouverture, statesman and military Genius, esteemed by the Spaniards, feared by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and reverenced by the Blacks. 1938

Inspired by the man who ushered in Haitian independence, Lawrence completed a collection of 41 evocative paintings titled The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1938, all of which are currently on display as part of Heroism in Paint at the Taft Museum of Art.

“Here is this brilliant, simple, and powerful image of this black man with all the regalia of a general,” says Lynne Ambrosini, director of collections and exhibitions for the museum. “It immediately conveys the heroic nature of the exhibit’s name.”

Lawrence, who died in 2000, used quick-drying tempera paint in a style he dubbed “dynamic cubism.” He also contextualized his art by writing captions for the exhibit—messages that proved rather prescient.

“We don’t have this institution of slavery that L’Ouverture was battling,” says Ambrosini, “but we have inequity in our society and injustice.” A battle won in a war still being fought.

Heroism in Paint, thru Jan 17, Taft Museum of Art, taftmuseum.org

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