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Image of Kibitzers

Jacob Lawrence , (Sep 7, 1917–Jun 9, 2000)

Kibitzers

1948
20 in. x 24 in. (50.8 cm x 60.96 cm)

Medium and Support: Egg tempera on masonite
Credit Line: Gift from the Childe Hassam Fund of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Accession Number: 1951.3

Commentary

After his discharge from the Coast Guard in December 1945, Jacob Lawrence returned to the phenomenally successful career he had launched before putting on a uniform. A strikingly exuberant example of the glowing formal and thematic complexity marking the works of the late 1940s, Kibitzers was one of a group of paintings treating contemporary African American experience that Lawrence produced between 1946 and 1948. In those paintings, he was picking up where he had left off before his induction into wartime service, with the scenes of contemporary Urban African American life that he created for the Harlem series started in 1942.

Unlike the earlier Migration series, the cycle of sixty tempera paintings portraying the post-World War I movement of African Americans from southern states to the North, in which Lawrence treated events of recent history that he had experienced only in reading and in oral accounts from family members and friends, the Harlem series was an opportunity to paint what he knew firsthand, as a resident of the uptown Manhattan neighborhood since the age of thirteen. Lawrence's last show before joining the Coast Guard was at New York's Downtown Gallery in May 1943, and consisted of the thirty gouaches from the Harlem series. While in the Coast Guard his interest in contemporary subjects carried over to the job he had in the Public Relations Branch, for which he made a series of paintings about Coast Guard life. These, along with works from the Migration series, were exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in 1944. An Art News review of the exhibition quoted Lawrence as saying he "tried to paint things as I see them.”1

Lawrence's historical perspective continued to occupy him as well during the war years. A series of gouaches on the nineteenth-century abolitionist John Brown was exhibited at the Boston Institute of Modem Art in 1945 before Lawrence left the Coast Guard, and then circulated as a traveling exhibition by the American Federation of Arts between 1946 and 1948. In 1946, out of his own recent past, Lawrence began the War series, a group of tempera paintings depicting different aspects of war—Shipping Out and Going Home were two titles from the series—and continued this into 1947. Among the projects that helped to refocus his attention on the contemporary African American experience was a commission from Fortune magazine in 1947 for ten paintings of the South, which allowed him to travel that summer through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee searching for material. In 1948 the Harlem-based poet Langston Hughes asked Lawrence to do a series of illustrations for One-Way Ticket, a collection of Hughes's poems, many treating themes of daily African American life in the city, which was published in 1949.

In Kibitzers, Lawrence has indeed put forth a statement akin to one of Hughes's succinct descriptions, in the fully poetic reconstruction of reality that is offered in this richly humanistic and wry rendition of urban street life. In representing a board game that appears to be checkers, the artist has featured the spectators and shown the mood of intense concentration uniting players and bystanders which probably had first attracted him to such a scene. This has been brought out through the hunched and looming overlapping shapes of the figures, while color relationships and brushstrokes serve to heighten the air of tension that pervades the image and endows it with such startling vitality.

The universal character of Lawrence's vision is also reflected in the title. The Yiddish word kibitzers, which refers to onlookers at a board or card game given to offering gratuitous advice to the players, has by now entered the mainstream, but in the late 1940s it was probably part of the vernacular only in New York; the choice is revealing of Lawrence's openness to cultures other than his own. The abstract tendencies in Lawrence's painting have remained an important concern of his through the last five decades of his career, and the harmonious balance between form and content in Kibitzers demonstrates the strength of his interest in composition, even in the late 1940s.

Ronny Cohen, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 418; revised by Kelley Tialiou, Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Assistant | Librarian | Archivist


1. Aline B. Louchheim, "Lawrence: Quiet Spokesman: Art News 43 (18 October 1944), p. 14.

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