Dreams by Jacob Lawrence | Analysis

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23/09/19 Arts Reference this

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Dreams Research Paper

        Dreams by Jacob Lawrence epitomizes the Harlem Renaissance. In it, a couple can be seen lying down on a brass bed. The brass bed has vertical lines over it, which give it the look of a prison. Demonic figures are visible over the couple’s heads. The couple appears to be dancing while looking at the painting horizontally, and sleeping when viewed vertically. Primary colors fill the painting, and attempt to make a gruesome past hopeful.

          Following World War 1, African Americans were unpleased with the status they had within the American government and the rest of the nation. Thus, many individuals invested themselves into exemplifying the positive aspects of the African Americans’ history. With this, the “New Negro” movement began. The idea was to describe the modern African Americans: a group of people who were just as equal as the whites. Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated writer, critic, and teacher who became known as the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, described it as a ‘spiritual coming of age’ in which African Americans transformed ‘social disillusionment to race pride (card #15). He was the first to coin the term “New Negro”. Its art was meant for the blacks to connect with, and for the whites to understand. “The Harlem Renaissance was vogue because it attracted an audience beyond the black population, which was a great part of their political motivation, around which literary publications were created to express the New Negro.” (card #41). The use of the word “vogue”, makes this era sound fashionable. The blacks were motivated to break the prejudices the whites would have had against them. The“ New Negro” here refers to the reborn African American who gets enlightened from his past.  The Renaissance did not last very long, but the impact that it had on the African American culture and art history lives on today. Harlem Renaissance was the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem after World War I. Harlem became an epicenter for an artistic explosion. The art scene was largely successful, whether that be superficial success or not. Many black artists enjoyed a plethora of success in the 1920’s.

          Jacob Lawrence, an artist motivated from as early as his youth, creates his art in a way such that anyone, regardless of his race, can relate to the piece. Before he was twenty years old, Lawrence had developed a potent and concise style that expressed all of the vibrancy and pathos of the neighborhood of Harlem and its occupants. He was 23 when he completed his set of paintings from the migration.  (card #27). From a very young age, he was inspired to display the emotions of his community. He wasn’t sympathetic for his people because of the terrible history, but instead he was proud that they overcame their past. And thus, to ensure the audience’s connection with the paintings, Lawrence did not adhere too closely to the modernist, abstract trend of the mid-20th century, for he did not want to limit those who could connect with his art. (card #23). Abstract Art consists of pattern and deep hidden meanings. Lawrence didn’t think that it was a good means of appealing to the majority of the population due to the style’s complex nature. He was greatly influenced by Aaron Douglas. Lawrence’s long-running and prolific career produced an oeuvre that speaks dramatically, graphically, and movingly to viewers of all colors and persuasions.

   In Dreams,  many motifs and racial symbols synthesize in order to portray it as a nightmare that the African Americans have to get over. This nightmare is first embodied through the devilish figures framed in the rectangles formed by the brass bars of the bed. The brass bars act like a prison. The artist  fills this piece with dark and tragic symbols so as to remind the viewers about the tragic past of his people. The devil-ish figures show that the artist feels very strongly about the cruelties of slavery and racism. A religious undertone to this visual nightmare is clear from the only item which crosses into our visual space – a crucifix. The crucifix hangs on the central bedpost, and appears to be directly in between the couple as they physically touch. It shows that albeit the devils seem to be harassing the couple, they have faith that god will help them overcome it. Furthermore, Lawrence uses a palette of browns, bright red, yellow-orange, black, white, and blue, in order to create his figures as non-naturalistic color blocks with their limbs elongated, their torsos concealed beneath blocky clothing, and their facial features simplified to eyes and mere sad outlines of a nose and mouth. (card #30). It combines the simplicity of African American Art with modern elements such as cubism. These compositional decisions are applied by the artist in order to eliminate extraneous background details that would take away from the poignant emotions of the narrative. The Artist’s most significant purpose behind creating this piece was to clear misconceptions about the heritage, and show the African Americans’  unity and zealousbess towards their race. 

Some African American artists incorporated stereotypes as a form of mockery, while others defied stereotypes as a form of declaring equality. It changed the image of African Americans to one of urban, urbane sophistication. I fact, African Americans enjoying culture was an attempt to break stereotypes in itself.

This is described as a period when the majority of black people in the United States were born as free people — the first generation when they were not largely born as slaves.” (Card #3). The fact that these people had freedom would have paved the way for creativity to reveal the feelings that were suppressed in them for decades. They were now able to tell their side of the history. For the first time, they were able to express their opinions through the use of various different mediums without having to ask for permission. This painting is an example of the blacks expressing their free opinions. It has an ironic title- it is titled dreams when it embodies the nightmare of slavery. However, this can be taken  in an optimistic manner by believing that Lawrence  is conveying that racism and slavery are defeated, and now the only place where we can see them is in our dreams. The dancing of the couple when looked at from a horizontal angle reveals that the artist is showing the couple to be dancing their way away from their past.

Additionally, the self-portrait of African American life, identity, and culture that emerged from Harlem was transmitted to the world at large, challenging the racist and disparaging stereotypes of the Jim Crow South. In doing so, it radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African American experience.” (card #29). The purpose of this movement is stated to be that of breaking boundaries that were earlier thought to be unbreakable. By breaking the Jim Crow laws, they made the rest of the world view them from a whole new, and more respectable perspective.   This piece actively tries to define what it meant to be both “African” and “American” in order to make the statement that they are indeed Americans, and not some aliens to this society. After their accomplishments as a race during the civil war, they didn’t want to be referred to as “Negro” because that alienated them. Tired of publishing art as anonymous to hide the fact that he was black, Lawrence used his name proudly. Instead of avoiding the topic of race, he worked it into his art. The idea of the new negro along with the culmination of the African American culture in Harlem, brought the art in the Harlem Renaissance to a new, never before seen level.

           Dreams by Jacob Lawrence strategically utilizes the principles of art, as well as themes of African American past, in order to inform the rest of the world about the uniqueness of the African-American culture, and at the same time inspire the African Americans to move forward from their horrendous past in an enlightened manner.

Works Consulted

  • “A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 14 Mar. 2018, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.
  • Daneman, Matthew. “Harlem Renaissance Ushered in New Era of Black Pride.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 4 Feb. 2015, www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/03/black-history-harlem-renaissance/22825245/.
  • Diamond, Anna. “Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century After His Birth.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Sept. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-works-visionary-artist-jacob-lawr
  • Driskell, David C., et al. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Studio Museum in Harlem, 1994.
  • Harlem Renaissance.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 424-426. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3045300994/GVRL?u=powa9245&sid=GVRL&xid=833edb05. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.
  • “Harlem Renaissance.” Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literary Movements, edited by Ira Mark Milne, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp. 335-373. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3279300022/GVRL?u=powa9245&sid=GVRL&xid=9b60d896. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.
  • Harmon, Wynita. “A Guide for Bringing the Harlem Renaissance into Your Classroom.” The Art of Ed, 13 Nov. 2017, www.theartofed.com/2017/11/16/promote-original-art-inspired-harlem-renaissance/.nce-still-resonate-century-after-his-birth-180964706/.
  • History, Google, 30 May 2012, www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/roaring-twenties/the-harlem-renaissance-video.
  • “Jacob Lawrence Artworks & Famous Paintings.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist-lawrence-jacob-artworks.htm.
  • “Jacob Lawrence.” DC Moore Gallery, www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/jacob-lawrence.
  • Joan Stahl. “Jacob Lawrence.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/artist/jacob-lawrence-2828.
  • “Langston Hughes.” Gale Student Resources in Context, Gale, 2017. Student Resources In Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/KMLQZX433345899/SUIC?u=powa9245&sid=SUIC&xid=97eec85b. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.
  • Smith, Charles F. “Dreams #1.” NBMAA, www.nbmaa.org/original-site-assets/timeline_highlights/essays/lawrence.html.
  • Wintz, Cary D. “The Harlem Renaissance: What Was It, and Why Does It Matter?”Humanities Texas, Feb. 2015, www.humanitiestexas.org/news/articles/harlem-renaissance-what-was-it-and-why-does-it-matter.

Works Cited

“A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 14 Mar. 2018, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.

Daneman, Matthew. “Harlem Renaissance Ushered in New Era of Black Pride.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 4 Feb. 2015, www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/03/black-history-harlem-renaissance/22825245/.

Diamond, Anna. “Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century After His Birth.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Sept. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-works-visionary-artist-jacob-lawr

Driskell, David C., et al. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Studio Museum in Harlem, 1994.

Harlem Renaissance.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 424-426. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3045300994/GVRL?u=powa9245&sid=GVRL&xid=833edb05. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

“Harlem Renaissance.” Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literary Movements, edited by Ira Mark Milne, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp. 335-373. Gale Virtual Reference Library, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3279300022/GVRL?u=powa9245&sid=GVRL&xid=9b60d896. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

Harmon, Wynita. “A Guide for Bringing the Harlem Renaissance into Your Classroom.” The Art of Ed, 13 Nov. 2017, www.theartofed.com/2017/11/16/promote-original-art-inspired-harlem-renaissance/.nce-still-resonate-century-after-his-birth-180964706/.

History, Google, 30 May 2012, www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/roaring-twenties/the-harlem-renaissance-video.

“Jacob Lawrence Artworks & Famous Paintings.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist-lawrence-jacob-artworks.htm.

“Jacob Lawrence.” DC Moore Gallery, www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/jacob-lawrence.

Joan Stahl. “Jacob Lawrence.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, americanart.si.edu/artist/jacob-lawrence-2828.

“Langston Hughes.” Gale Student Resources in Context, Gale, 2017. Student Resources In Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/KMLQZX433345899/SUIC?u=powa9245&sid=SUIC&xid=97eec85b. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

Smith, Charles F. “Dreams #1.” NBMAA, www.nbmaa.org/original-site-assets/timeline_highlights/essays/lawrence.html.

Wintz, Cary D. “The Harlem Renaissance: What Was It, and Why Does It Matter?”Humanities Texas, Feb. 2015, www.humanitiestexas.org/news/articles/harlem-renaissance-what-was-it-and-why-does-it-matter.

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