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George Sopko (pr@colby.edu)
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Rare print series gifted by philanthropists Peter and Paula Lunder manifests the artistic and narrative power of one of the most important American artists of the 20th century

The Colby College Museum of Art is pleased to announce the acquisition of a rare print series by Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important artists of the 20th century. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1936–38, comprising 15 prints, depicts the life of the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Philanthropists and longtime Colby College benefactors Peter and Paula Lunder, who have contributed more than 1,500 works to the museum since 2013, purchased and donated the prints in honor of David and Carolyn Greene. 

Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986. Silkscreen on paper, 28 3/8 x 18 ½”. The Lunder Collection; 2020.022.6.

The prints are based on Lawrence’s series of 41 tempera paintings, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, completed in 1938 and now in the collection of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans. The artist returned to the series nearly 50 years later, selecting 15 of the original paintings to rework and translate into larger dynamic silkscreen prints published by the Amistad Research Center and printed by Workshop, Inc., Washington, D.C., (Lou Stovall, master printer) between 1986 and 1997. Because these were printed and sold individually rather than as a series, complete sets are scarce. 

“This series manifests Lawrence’s remarkable ability to poignantly chronicle little-known histories. Haiti was not only the first country in the American hemisphere to declare independence; it was the first republic in the world to be founded by former slaves,” notes Jacqueline Terrassa, Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. 

“Important on its own terms, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s role in this quest for freedom gains a new level of relevance today within the context of the ongoing struggle for racial justice.”

An Overnight Sensation 

Widely renowned for his modernist depictions of everyday life, as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures, Lawrence (1917–2000) became a nationally known figure virtually overnight when his The Migration Series was shown at New York’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. At 24, he became the first Black artist to be represented by a New York gallery. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture was the artist’s first narrative series, predating other well-known early series such as The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1939, The Life of Harriet Tubman, 1940, and The Migration Series, 1941. By revisiting a liberation movement from more than a century earlier, Lawrence advanced his exploration of Black cultural expression and pride. His decision to revisit these works five decades later demonstrates how deeply the series’ themes resonated for him. 

The artist’s strong angular figuration and bold use of color expressively depict L’Ouverture’s struggle against slavery and oppression. Born into slavery in 1743, L’Ouverture was an early participant in the rebellion, eventually rising to become commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army and leading the campaign in 1800 to draft Haiti’s first democratic constitution. L’Ouverture was arrested by Napoléon Bonaparte’s troops in 1802 and sent to Paris, where he was imprisoned and died a year later, shortly before Haiti became a republic in 1804.

Foregrounding Black Resistance

Lawrence’s work is held in public collections throughout the country. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture joins two other works by Lawrence in the Lunder Collection, Builders #1 (1968) and Often Three Families Share One Toilet (1943). An additional work, Protest Rally (1965), was acquired by the museum in 1973. These works reflect the socially engaged manner in which Lawrence depicted contemporary African American life at mid-century. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture highlights his interest in histories of Black liberation. This powerful series of prints, in tandem with David Driskell’s Soul X (1968) and Elizabeth Catlett’s Sister (1971)—additional works recently added to the Lunder Collection—foreground African American expressions of resistance, solidarity, and identity in the history of American art. The series expands the geographic boundaries of the study of American art to include themes related to the Caribbean and the broader American hemisphere in the 18th century. 

Much like the other works on paper by Lawrence already in the collection, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture will become a cornerstone of academic and public engagement. Focused on 18th-century events in the French colony of Haiti, but originally conceived by Lawrence during the Great Depression and revisited in the 1980s, the series offers many interdisciplinary historical points of entry. Lawrence’s graphic color, concise but dynamic narrative style and serial approach will facilitate rich programming with audiences of all ages. The profound resonance of the artist’s work is exemplified by the recent volume, American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence, a compilation of 30 interpretive reactions published by the Peabody Essex Museum in connection with their nationally touring exhibition.

Jacob Lawrence, Strategy from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1994. Silkscreen on paper, 22 x 32 in. The Lunder Collection, 2020.022.3

 

This gift is the latest example of how the Lunders have helped to transform the Colby College Museum of Art in profound ways. Their 2013 gift of the Lunder Collection, featuring more than 500 extraordinary works by some of the most significant American artists and considered one of the most important private collections of its kind, was among the largest donations of artwork ever made to an American college. Four years later, in 2017, they followed it with another gift to the museum of more than 1,000 additional works. As generous advocates of Colby College, the Lunders have also supported museum expansions, including the addition of the Lunder Wing in 1999. The Lunders continue to be generous to the museum, with recent gifts of work by Rembrandt van Rijn, Katsushika Hokusai, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Claire Falkenstein, Robert Duncanson, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others. 

The full series of prints can be viewed on the Colby Museum website.