Tacoma, WA — On Saturday, October 13, the Washington State History Museum opens the exhibition Collections Selections: Jacob Lawrence. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a five-panel work by Lawrence in his recognizable style, painted in crisp shapes and bright hues with browns and deeper tones. The five paintings convey the story of George Bush, the first African American pioneer to settle in what is now Washington.
In addition to the paintings, the exhibition includes items from the late 1800s and early 1900s that belonged to the Bush family, photographs and negatives showing Bush family members, and the letter from Lawrence accepting the commission for the paintings. Collections Selections: Jacob Lawrence will be on view for 14 weeks, through January 20, 2019.
One of America’s most renowned artists, Jacob Lawrence moved from New York to Seattle in 1970, where he worked as an art professor at University of Washington. In 1972, Lawrence was invited by the state to paint a historical narrative about George Bush, who co-founded the state’s first permanent settlement in Tumwater. Lawrence was one of the first black visual artists to focus on African American history as the subject matter of his art. He completed the series in 1973. The paintings now stand as a testament to the significance and power of his art, and pay tribute to the contributions that George Bush made to Washington in its early years as a territory and state.
The five paintings in this series are a personal interpretation of the journey of George Bush and the Simmons-Bush party from Missouri to Washington. George Bush chose to settle in Tumwater due to black exclusion laws that, at the time, were enforced in the southern Oregon territory.
In making the paintings, Lawrence conducted extensive research, consulting the archives of the Washington State Historical Society, the Oregon Pioneer Association, and several historic newspapers from Oregon and Washington. He approached the series methodically and with a prescribed process, completing pencil drawings in sequence. Rather than completing each one separately, the artist mixed a color, then applied that color to each work in the locations where it would appear to create visual consistency throughout the series.
At the time that Lawrence painted this series, George Bush was popularly known as “George Washington Bush.” In recent years, historian Jewell Dunn and others have concluded, based on available source evidence, that “Washington” was not likely to have been his middle name. It may have been added due to conflation between George Bush and George Washington, the African American settler who founded the town of Centralia, Washington in the 1870s.
At the age of 23, Lawrence had painted his famous Migration Series, a 60-panel set of paintings portraying the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern U.S. to the northern U.S. following World War I. His first major solo exhibition was held in 1940 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, heralding Lawrence as one of the most significant painters in the country. Upon his death in 2000, he was described in The New York Times as “among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience.”
The George Washington Bush Series is part of the Washington State Historical Society’s permanent collection. Works on paper are among the more challenging media to conserve, and the series is on view for limited durations for the purposes of preservation. Take advantage of this opportunity to see these works at the Washington State History Museum between now and early 2019.