"Tomorrow's Stars": Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler

Portrait of Jacob Lawrence in black and white
Jacob Lawrence, 1957 / Alfredo Valente papers, 1941-1978. Artwork: © 2020 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
A self-portrait of American modernist Charles Sheeler.
Charles Sheeler, American, 1883–1965. Charles Sheeler, not before 1932. Downtown Gallery records, 1824-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Art can express love, understanding, pain, joy, anger, frustration; it can change minds, hearts, bodies and move souls! At the Gallery, we have always and will always strive to use the art we feature to tell these stories and to help heal divides with artistic dialogue.

We launched Boos Knows to that end in March 2019. Since then, we published over 60 essays and interviews, accessible to all, and featuring some of the leading voices of our field. But more importantly, we heard from you. From all corners of the country, you shared your thoughts, feedback, and all the interesting connections you were drawing from the works the Gallery presented. So when we found ourselves in lockdown, away from the galleries and museums in which we usually enjoy seeing you, we doubled down on these remote conversations and launched our first Spring Catalogue, which features archival materials and short essays for each artwork.

Encouraged by your response, we’re now pleased to offer our first online exhibition, exploring the work of two of America’s great 20th century modernists, Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler, and featuring two masterpieces available through our Gallery. Please join us for this virtual dialogue, available below from June 22 to July 15, 2020.


Two Artists in Conversation

Lawrence and Sheeler were brought together by pioneering art dealer Edith Halpert, who shaped the progression of American Modern art from her Downtown Gallery in New York City. An advocate for American art at a time when the European avant-garde was en vogue, Halpert propelled Lawrence and Sheeler, along with a vast roster that included Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove, into the art world. She advocated for diversity and accessibility in American art, representing outsider and minority artists and embracing a variety of aesthetic perspectives and movements. Through Downtown Gallery exhibitions, Lawrence and Sheeler befriended each other. Together, their works capture the dynamism of 20th century American art, as well as American society more broadly.


Works Available

Jacob Lawrence's nativity scene with the holy family standing on the left and chickens in the foreground.
Jacob Lawrence
Nativity, 1954
Egg tempera on board
9 x 12 inches
Signed and dated lower right


During the 1950s, Lawrence experimented with a new body of work that explored the theme of performance. As Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins states, “the paintings on the theme of performance are highly decorative and more than any prior group display Lawrence’s mode of abstraction with a heightened sense of emotionalism that makes for riveting and beautifully unsettling imagery. These works were produced from his memories of performances at the Apollo Theater on Harlem’s 125th Street.” [1]

Did you know that Lawrence was drafted in 1943 to fight in the Second World War? Or that, aside from being an artist, he was also a teacher? Click here to visit Boos Knows and read “9 Things You Should Know About The Artist,” an article in which we explore the influences that shaped his work and legacy.

This detail shows blue, grey and pink shapes inspired by industrial designs
Charles Sheeler
Meta-Mold, 1952
Oil on canvas
25 ¼ x 31 inches
Signed and dated lower right

Charles Sheeler first turned to American industry as subject matter in the late 1920s as part of the Precisionist movement. In the early 1950s, he received several important industrial commissions, the majority of which were arranged by the Downtown Gallery. Upon the suggestion of company chairman Otto Spaeth, Sheeler visited the Meta-Mold Aluminum (now Amcast Industrial) Corporation in Cedarburg, Wisconsin to capture the cutting-edge machinery. The resulting painting, left, reduces the elements of the bustling factory into a series of fundamental shapes and geometric structures.


Notable Sales: Stroll Down Memory Lane

Jonathan Boos has a long history dealing in and making many notable sales of works by both Lawrence and Sheeler. In a stroll down memory lane, we share the below stories of many of the wonderful artworks that we have placed and the themes that brought the two artists together.

While working in distinct styles, both Lawrence and Sheeler shared a profound bond in using their art to portray their lives and experiences. Lawrence moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood as a child and was captivated by the hustle-and-bustle of the historically African-American community, which became a reoccurring subject in his work. Sheeler too was captivated by the modern city, yet while Lawrence’s eye was drawn to the people who make the place, Sheeler’s was focused on the feats of industry that make urban areas possible. Without further ado, we present Lawrence’s Harlem Street Scene and Sheeler’s Stacks in Celebration: 

In this painting by Jacob Lawrence, a busy street corner of Harlem is depicted in grey and red tones.
Jacob Lawrence
Harlem Street Scene, 1942
Gouache on paper
22¼ x 22¾ inches
Signed and dated lower right

Completed a year after Lawrence’s career-making series "The Migration of the American Negro," this work depicts the community that had been the artist’s home since 1930. Lawrence poignantly depicts the neighborhood going about its daily business, full of vitality and life.

While many residents encountered harsh living conditions in 20th century Harlem, writers of the time described the area's vitality and the sense of community as some of the reasons inspiring the Harlem Renaissance. Lawrence masterfully conveys that spirit in this wonderful street scene.

"Harlem Street Scene" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

"In order to add something to their lives, [black families] decorated their tenements and their homes in all of these colors. I've been asked, is anyone in my family artistically inclined? I've always felt ashamed of my response and I always said no, not realizing that my artistic sensibility came from this ambiance.... It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and took in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the Depression."

Jacob Lawrence [2]
This work by Charles Sheeler shows several chimneys
Charles Sheeler
Stacks in Celebration, 1954
Tempera on plexiglas
7½ x 9 inches
Signed lower right margin

"Stacks in Celebration" is a study for an oil painting of the same name in the collection of the Dayton Art Institute. The subject is a power plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that Sheeler visited in 1939–40. He spent several hours photographing the deserted plant. This tempera study conveys a sense of immediacy not present in the artist’s finished works and provides insight into the working processes of an early modernist master.

"Stacks in Celebration" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.


Dynamic Cubism and Precisionism

Lawrence and Sheeler exemplified two distinct styles in American modern art: Dynamic Cubism and Precisionism. Lawrence referred to his style as “Dynamic Cubism.” His flattened perspectives, unusual angles and abstracted forms signify a connection to the Cubists of the European avant-garde, yet many of his works appear to be more frieze-like in nature than dynamic. While Lawrence employed elements of abstraction, his works are largely representational, depicting everyday scenes of American life. Notably, Lawrence shot to stardom at 23 years old with his 60 panel The Migration of the American Negro series, which portrayed the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African-Americans from the rural Southern United States to the industrial North following the beginning of the first World War.

Trained in industrial drawing, decorative painting and applied art, Sheeler also utilized abstracted, geometric forms throughout his artistic practice. He taught himself photography and had a keen eye for architecture, light and shadows. Many of his photographs of mechanical parts and factory materials later served as inspirations for paintings. Focusing on simple shapes and underlying structures, his artworks came to exemplify the Precisionist movement — a crisp, clean, hard-edged style that combined aspects of cubist abstraction and the machine aesthetic.

Four carpenters at work in their shop.
Jacob Lawrence
The Carpenters, 1946
Gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper
19 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches

Painted in 1946 and acquired in the same year from Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, this work remained unknown until it was recently offered at Sotheby’s. Lawrence’s depiction of a busy carpentry shop transforms the workplace into a series of angular planes and fractured forms. The work’s cubist composition and bold colors create a sense of dynamism, driving the viewer’s eyes across the picture to study the work of each carpenter.

"The Carpenters" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

This colorful work by Jacob Lawrence shows a few characters and bright feathers
Jacob Lawrence
18. In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit… –Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, 1956
Egg tempera on hardboard
16 x 12 inches
Signed and dated lower center

The present work is from a proposed series of 60 paintings providing a “pictorial history of the United States” depicting “the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” from the Revolution to the 20th century. Lawrence would only complete half of the panels, representing the Revolution, the Constitution, and the Western Migration, which were exhibited in 1956 and 1958 under the title "Struggle… From the History of the American People." The series highlights America’s tumultuous and violent past and relates to the civil rights movement occurring at the time Lawrence was painting it. This panel exhibits Lawrence’s mastery of composition and his boldness in selecting subject matter.

This is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

This work by Charles Sheeler shows a dead tree in front of a bright blue and green background.
Charles Sheeler
Tree and Landscape, 1947
Tempera on paper on board
15⅝ x 13½ inches
Signed and dated lower right

"Tree and Landscape" was created when Sheeler was living in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a town in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains — perhaps the mountains viewed behind the branches here. In works of this period, Sheeler departed from his trademark realist style to explore the more Cubist-influenced approaches last seen early in his career.

In this later work, Sheeler reduces the New England landscape with flat planes, excluding nearly all detail save for the color of the land and sky. While "Tree and Landscape" is figurative, it above all captures the essence of the time and place rather than its specifics.

"Tree and Landscape" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

"Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward. Photography records inalterably the single image, while painting records a plurality of images willfully directed by the artist."

Charles Sheeler [3]
This work by Jacob Lawrence shows characters in the upper third, with bright red earth in front
Jacob Lawrence
Red Earth - Georgia, 1947
Egg tempera on hardboard
20 x 24 inches
Signed and dated lower right

In the 1940s, Fortune magazine commissioned Lawrence to execute several works depicting African Americans in the southern Black Belt. "Red Earth – Georgia," which depicts sharecroppers at the end of a long workday, is one of ten paintings Lawrence completed for the magazine. The abstracted, cubist handling of the red earth in the lower register of the painting nearly overshadows the activity above.

Lawrence’s vivid imagery and straightforward caption for "Red Earth – Georgia" alludes to his nuanced view of sharecropping, “Within the black belt can be found most of the Negro wealth in the United States. There are palatial homes, palatial funeral parlors, rich insurance companies and a few banks – but the great mass of people are poor.”

"Red Earth - Georgia" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

Painting in gouache by Jacob Lawrence, showing two black figures embracing on a bright green couch, against a bright yellow background
Jacob Lawrence
The Lovers, 1946
Gouache on paper
21 1/2 x 30 inches
Signed and dated lower right

"The Lovers" was painted upon Lawrence’s return to New York after two years in the Coast Guard, where he served as a combat artist, and represents a typical postwar domestic scene. “Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house,” Lawrence said of his own home and those in his community. “It must have had some influence, all this color and everything. Because we were so poor, the people used this as a means of brightening their life. I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs; I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement, and so on.” In the work's vibrant colors, one can see the impact of the artist's memories in his rendition of a domestic scene.

"The Lovers" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.


Edith Halpert's "Gamble"

Flipping  through LIFE Magazine in 1952, you would have found the below group portrait on page 87. The headline reads “Dealer With An Eye For Talent Tries To Pick Tomorrow’s Stars.” This article, some of you may have guessed, featured some of the artists at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.  You may recognize Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler, among others. It would take 25 years, the article notes, to find out if the “gamble” Halpert took on these artists’ “future successes” would pay off.

A group portrait of artists represented by Downtown Gallery.
Group portrait of artists represented by Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery. Seated from left: Jack Levine (on floor), Stuart Davis (behind Levine), William Zorach, Bernard Karlfiol. Behind them are: Jacob Lawrence, David Fredenthal, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Sheeler, Ben Shahn. Image published in Life Magazine, 1952.

Now consider this: in 2019, The Jewish Museum in New York devoted an entire exhibition to Halpert’s legacy. And for good reason! A pioneering art dealer and the first significant female gallerist in the United States, Halpert shaped the trajectory of American art from her Downtown Gallery in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. She propelled American modernists, including Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler, but also Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove, into the spotlight while advocating for diversity and accessibility in American art.

Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art was the first exhibition to explore the revolutionary career of Halpert, who came to the United States as a Russian Jewish immigrant, and her resounding impact on modern art. It featured 100 works of American modern and folk art that were exhibited or sold through Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, American Folk Art Gallery or were part of her personal collection. Click here to read an interview with the Jewish Museum’s Associate Curator Rebecca Shaykin, published on Boos Knows.

Gallery view of the exhibition, published in The New York Times
Gallery view of “Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art” with four works, left, from “The Harlem Series” by Jacob Lawrence; paintings by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Horace Pippin, and, at right, Peter Blume. Credit: © 2020 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; The Educational Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume, Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Jason Mandella.

Thanks for following us through this exhibition. It seems undeniable that the “gamble” Edith Halpert took on Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler, as noted in LIFE Magazine in 1952, did in fact pay off. What do you think?

[1] Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, “The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence’s Early Works, 1938-1952,” in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001, p. 131.
[2] Robert Hughes, “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.” Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition, 1999.
[3] Martin Friedman, Bartlett Hayes [and] Charles Millard, “Charles Sheeler: Essays” 1968.