Your Last Chance to See These Famous Lost Paintings Is Coming Right Up

September brings with it many things—a change of seasons, a return to school, and, this year, a last chance to see a famous series of paintings that have finally been reunited. In the midst of the pandemic period, not one but two panels from Jacob Lawrence’s famed Struggle series emerged after years of being presumed lost. (In the second instance, which The New York Times described as lightning striking twice, an Upper West Side nurse was interestingly the one to make the discovery.)

Regardless, both paintings and their accompanying works are currently on display at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.—at least through September 19. “It is a watershed moment to excavate their lost histories and rediscover the integrity of their place within the larger visual and conceptual framework of Lawrence’s Struggle series,” Elsa Smithgall, senior curator at The Phillips Collection, says to Architectural Digest of the found panels. Notably, the location of a couple of Struggle paintings is still unknown, meaning that such discoveries could continue to take place. 

Panel 28, which resurfaced just this year.

Photo: © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An eminent American artist of the 20th century, Lawrence was also a pioneering Black creative. His Migration series—which focuses on the Great Migration of African-Americans departing southern U.S. states—is what he is arguably best known for today. Incidentally, the founder of The Phillips Collection, Duncan Phillips, purchased the odd-numbered panels of Migration in the early 1940s. Therefore, the institution makes for a particularly fitting setting in which to showcase these other Lawrence works. 

Art history buffs aside, Smithgall is quick to point out a reason why architecture and design fans over the world might be interested in his oeuvre: “Lawrence had a remarkable eye for dynamic spatial compositions built from bold geometries of form and patterns of color,” she says. “His strong spatial sensibilities caught the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright, who once declared that Jacob Lawrence ‘would make a great architect.’”

While the museum features additional information on its website about Lawrence’s life and work, the artist himself may have put it best when it comes to this series: “I. . . hope that these paintings when completed will serve in some small way to further enlighten those who come in contact with the theme of the struggles, contributions, and ingenuity of the American people.”

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