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Jacob Lawrence: The Legend of John Brown series

"The Legend of John Brown" comprises 22 narrative screenprints, created in 1977 by artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), on the subject of abolitionist John Brown. Acquired in 1995 by the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) for the State Art Collection, the series represents the outstanding creative gifts of the artist, as well as his important contribution to the struggle for social justice in American life. The series is currently on view at the University of Washington in the Computer Science and Engineering Building.

The series is based on a suite of original gouache paintings that Jacob Lawrence created in 1941, which are now in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The series depicts the dramatic moral choices and life events of the white abolitionist John Brown, who, in the mid-1850s, organized covert attacks to liberate slaves from southern plantations and led antislavery troops in an effort to keep Kansas a free state. The series begins with Brown's decision to become an activist, depicts his struggle as an organizer and strategist, and ends with his capture, conviction and execution for treason in the winter of 1859.

Brown was a controversial figure in his lifetime and remains so today. His single-mindedness and the violence of his methods were hailed as both heroic and foolhardy. What began as an attack on supporters of slavery swelled into an effort intended to bring about the complete downfall of the South. Brown's actions and notoriety contributed to the onset of the Civil War, which ultimately achieved his goal of abolishing slavery. But, his tactics were daring and sometimes misguided, resulting in bloody battles and heavy losses, including the death of Brown's own son.

Produced in print form in 1977, "The Legend of John Brown" represents Jacob Lawrence at his full artistic strength. With vibrant color, narrative precision and powerful graphic imagery, Lawrence dramatically conveys the story of John Brown in all its complexity. As a vehicle for teaching, "The Legend of John Brown" offers a fresh opportunity to explore a critical moment in American History and to examine the vital role of art and artists in interpreting and disseminating that history.

The Legend of John Brown