Collection Spotlight: Jacob Lawrence, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture

Artist: Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917 – 2000)
Title: The Birth of Toussaint, from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture
Date: 1986
Medium: Color screenprint
Credit Line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Evelyn Salk, in memory of her husband Erwin A. Salk, 2001.13.2.

During the early 20th-century, the Harlem Renaissance was defined by a convergence of heightened geopolitical awareness and aesthetic experimentation in visual art, music, and literature produced in the eponymous New York City neighborhood. Harlem Renaissance artists concerned themselves with the causes of the Global South as part of a growing Pan-Africanist sentiment inclined toward Black sovereignty, independence, and freedom from Western colonial-imperialism. As this pivotal movement in American art and culture began, the U.S. military invaded the Caribbean nation of Haiti, launching an occupation that would last nearly two decades. Painters, photographers, performers, and writers subsequently journeyed between the streets of Harlem and the shores of Haiti to produce a rich body of art, scholarship, and literature, cementing the latter’s symbolic significance in African American modernity and African diasporic culture.

As art historian Krista Thompson has noted, some Harlem Renaissance artists, including the painter and printmaker Jacob Lawrence did not journey to Haiti physically, but imaginatively.[1] At age twenty, Lawrence began a series of paintings depicting Haitian history and the life of its famed 18th-century revolutionary hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Lawrence enacted this creative and intellectual pilgrimage twice; first, while painting the original series in the late 1930s, and once again during the final decades of his life as he transferred a selection of these images to silkscreen prints in the postcolonial 1980s and 1990s.

Jacob Lawrence, The Birth of Toussaint from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1986. Color screenprint, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Evelyn Salk, in memory of her husband Erwin A. Salk. 2001.13.2

Lawrence and L’Ouverture at the Library

Jacob Lawrence migrated to Harlem while its Renaissance was in full swing under the auspices of such artists as Augusta Savage, Archibald Motley, and Aaron Douglas. Many of his formative experiences in the arts took place at what is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the 135th street branch of the New York Public Library, an influential hub of activity for many young artists. He pored over texts that included John Relly Beard’s 1853 The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture to create an expansive series of 41 tempera paintings spanning the nation’s history from the arrival of Christopher Columbus and ensuant colonization of Saint-Domingue to the start of its slave-led revolution in 1791, culminating in its independence as Haiti in 1804. Lawrence also appended detailed titles to each painting in the series, describing events and figures from his source material with a fervent commitment to chronicling the formation of the hemisphere’s first Black republic. Today, it is possible to take for granted the status of these events as crucial to not only African diasporic culture but also world history writ large. However, when Lawrence set about this task in 1937, it would be another year before C.L.R. James’s masterful text on the subject, The Black Jacobins, would be published and a second edition away from being fully accepted into the historical canon.[2] Lawrence’s series countered what Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot would later theorize as its silencing in the narrative of Western history throughout the 20th century.[3] The artist recognized the present-day plight of Black citizens as rooted in the legacy of slavery, suggesting that its afterlife could once again be met with resistance:

I didn’t do it just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we certainly can do the same thing.[4]

The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture from Paint to Print

Breathing new life and voice into revolutionary history through rich visual expression, Lawrence packed Haiti’s epic tale into a series of 17 x 11-inch tempera paintings on paper. The full series of paintings is currently housed at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans which, like the Schomburg Center, was committed to conserving and sharing African diasporic history. In the first five compositions, the artist depicted the inception of European colonization, the influence of Christianity, and imperial competition between French and Spanish agents in Saint-Domingue. The sixth painting, the first that Lawrence decided to transfer and enlarge in print portrays the birth of Toussaint L’Ouverture in a moving and intimate nod to the leader’s familial roots. Lawrence displays an early prowess for compositional dynamism, lining the walls with horizontal and vertical wooden planks that echo the rhythmic repetition of lines and shapes used throughout the series to depict jostling crowds and volatile tropical plantations. The paneled ceiling stretches toward a mother and child as they lie together in a bed on which red and blue blankets, alongside the baby’s white swaddle, signal the colors of the Haitian flag. The artist includes a small window above them, open to the violent and unpredictable beyond. Dark green and black blades of grass beyond the window rise upward like raised fists, foreshadowing the ascent of Haiti to revolutionary freedom while the woman’s gaze guides us back down to her arms. We follow her line of sight to the newborn child and witness a rare moment of quietude in the ultimately tragic life of the famed hero.

Jacob Lawrence, The blacks were led by three chiefs, Jean Francois, Biassou, and Jeannot; Toussaint serving as aide-de-camp to Biassou, 1937–38 from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, tempera, Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, ARC.HAR.JLAW.1938.s14
Jacob Lawrence, Strategy, 1994 from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, color screenprint, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Evelyn Salk, in memory of her husband Erwin A. Salk, 2001.13.4

Lawrence delineated planes of rising, waving stalks of grass throughout the series, creating a motif that framed the scenes of both colonial cruelty and rebel strategizing that punctuated L’Ouverture’s life. Aside from Lawrence’s distillation of the series from 41 to 15 pieces, some of his most interesting adaptations of the paintings into silkscreen print appear in the rendering of these grassy shapes. For example, comparing a 1937 painting of three revolutionary chiefs with its later counterpart, Strategy (1994) , we can see that the four-decade gap between paint and print prompted the artist to experiment with new colors.

The work depicts L’Ouverture’s entry into the Haitian rebellion under its earliest leaders Jean-François Papillon, Jeannot Bullet, and Georges Biassou who all gather around a table to discuss their next moves against the French colonial elite and incoming Napoleonic forces. In his painting, Lawrence places the men before a curved pale pink backdrop pinned to a wooden structure. Behind it lies the signature motif: blades of curved grass stretching toward the night sky. In the screen-printed version, we find a curious addition of electric pink to the grassy stalks, L’Ouverture’s sword and what appears to be smoke rising from a candle that remained unlit in the painted version. Lawrence’s use of the neon tone exclusively for this print focuses our attention more squarely on the curved, outstretched motif, used on a variety of objects and materials throughout the series: swords, flames, guns, fists, and flags. These weighty symbols inflect the rest of the paintings with a full gamut of emotion, befitting for the revolutionary tale; the triumphantly raised palm of a woman in Dondon, a town captured for the rebellion by L’Ouverture and his forces; the juxtaposition of destruction and desolation in a row of burning houses foregrounded by a large empty plantation plot; long dreamy wisps of color exhaled from a lit candle on L’Ouverture’s desk as he reads late into the night.

In the lattermost example, Lawrence amended the original painting quite extensively, including not only additional colors to the flame to symbolize the Haitian flag, but also details to L’Ouverture’s clothing and office.

Lawrence ends the original series of paintings with the capture and extradition of Toussaint L’Ouverture to France where he was imprisoned for a year and died in his cell—composed in an eerily similar manner to the room of his birth —in 1803, one year before the Haitian revolution ended successfully. Whereas the final painting shows the crowning of Jean-Jacques Dessalines as Emperor of Haiti, the final screenprint is a battle scene with armed men, women, and children taking up arms against the French army in the print To Preserve Their Freedom. Here, Lawrence concludes the prints prior to the death of L’Ouverture, stopping at his homage to the anonymous masses of Black locals foundational to the revolution; it is the final composition in either version of the series to feature the charged, waving motif of fronds that mirror the group’s hoisted weapons.

Jacob Lawrence, The death of Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Prison of Le Joux, April 1803. Imprisoned a year, Toussaint died of a broken heart., 1937-38 from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, tempera on paper, Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, ARC.HAR.JLAW.1938.s39

Jacob Lawrence’s goal of sharing Haiti’s revolutionary history has continued into the 21st century. His late-career translation of 15 original paintings of The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture into roughly 120 editions of the printed series over the course of nine years from 1988 to 1997 enabled his work to be collected by multiple institutions. As one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence was widely praised for producing numerous other series on Black historical figures and events in the six intervening decades between creating the paintings and the prints.  Two key moments that define this inaugural series—from the artist’s initial interest in Haitian history in 1937 to his later reinterpretation concluded in 1997—bookend both Lawrence’s practice and the zenith of 20th-century modern art, irrevocably changed by his life’s work.

Jacob Lawrence, To Preserve Their Freedom, 1988 from the series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, color screenprint, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Evelyn Salk in memory of her husband Erwin A. Salk, 2001.13.16


[1] Krista A. Thompson, “Preoccupied with Haiti: The Dream of Diaspora in African American Art, 1915–1942,” American Art 21, no. 3 (September 2007): 74–97.

[2] C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd edition (New York, N.Y.: Vintage, 1989).

[3] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

[4] Lawrence quoted in Peter T. Nesbett, Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints, 1963–2000, 2nd edition (Seattle: Francine Seders Gallery, 2005). 16.

– Collection Spotlight by Ashleigh Deosaran, 2022–23 Block Curatorial Graduate Fellow.

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