Jacob Lawrence's nativity scene with the holy family standing on the left and chickens in the foreground.

Jacob Lawrence

American, 1917-2000

Nativity, 1954

Egg tempera on board

9 x 12 inches

Signed and dated on the lower right

At first glance, Jacob Lawrence’s “Nativity” looks to be a decidedly nonpolitical depiction of a familiar biblical story – the birth of Jesus in a manger. Arranged in a stage-like setting, the holy family is rendered as African American and surrounded by a group of blue chickens and three oversized roosters, which may be a reference to the three wise men. Yet the exaggerated points of the roosters’ combs evoke the crown on the Statue of Liberty, suggesting the promise of hope in the dawn of the civil rights movement. “Nativity” was painted in 1954, the year of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. While the ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement, skepticism was felt among the African American community. Lawrence’s stylistic use of fractured, sharp, and shard-like lines reflects the charged racial environment of the period.

Jacob Lawrence's nativity scene with the holy family standing on the left and chickens in the foreground.