Jacob Lawrence: Dancing Doll, 1947
street vendors demonstrating dancing dolls on strings while onlookers watch
Jacob Lawrence
Dancing Doll, 1947
Gouache on composition board, 201/2 x 241/8 in.


Jacob Lawrence was a keen observer of life around him, particularly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, where he lived most of his life. He describes Dancing Doll as “a street scene of peddlers selling dolls which dance. The doll dances as it is manipulated by an invisible string.” The solid-colored figures of the peddlers and bystanders tower over the smaller, multicolored dolls. His paintings tell the stories about what he saw in his neighborhood and invite us to think more deeply about the struggles and challenges faced by those who live in big cities. They also are lively compositions of colors, shapes, and patterns. At the start of World War I in 1914, about ninety percent of all African Americans lived in the southern states. By 1970 half of all black Americans lived in the North, most in cities. Millions of African Americans had moved from the South to northern cities looking to escape racism and to find better job opportunities. This population shift, which occurred in waves around the World Wars, is known as the Great Migration. Distinctive and vibrant black urban communities developed in northern cities and changed the culture of America.


Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917, Jacob Lawrence grew up in New York City. When he was twelve, his mother sent him to art classes to keep him out of trouble after school. He received a scholarship to the American Artists School. When he was twenty, he began his first series of paintings dealing with the history of African Americans. He created sequenced scenes that celebrated the lives of Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas, and that told of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the early decades of the twentieth century. Lawrence chose this subject matter because in the 1930s he did not find many artists documenting these leaders and telling these stories. Lawrence was known for using gouache, a water-based paint that is not transparent and not shiny, much like tempera paint. This gives his paintings a distinctive look and flat finish. Jacob Lawrence painted and taught art for many years in Seattle until his death in 2000.