By Brian Boyd
On view at Colby Museum of Art in Waterville through June 5, a series of silkscreen prints by the great 20th-century artist Jacob Lawrence narrates the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born into enslavementin 1743 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, L’Ouverture led the revolt that culminated, in 1804, in the world’s first republic to be both free from slavery and governed by formerly enslaved people of African descent. The exhibit’s 15 prints, created between 1986 and 1997 based on a series of 41 paintings Lawrence exhibited in 1937 at the age of 20, celebrate a man whose extraordinary achievements place him, in the words of scholar Vanessa K. Valdés, “at the very center of Atlantic history.”
As a young artist in Harlem during the Great Depression, inspired and befriended by artists and intellectuals like Charles Alston and Professor Charles Seifert, Lawrence immersed himself in the study of Black history, “stimulated by anger,” according to artist and art historian Romare Bearden, “over the omission of this history from schoolbooks and by his growing pride in black accomplishments in the past.” For Lawrence, exploring Black history was just as much about the present as the past. “I didn’t do it just as a historical thing,” he stated in 1940. “We don’t have physical slavery, but an economic slavery.”
Influenced by the social justice murals of Mexican artists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, as well as the earthy, panoramic scenes of Pieter Bruegel, Lawrence’s art combined boldly contrasting colors, stylized figures, and a deep respect for the dignity of everyday life and struggle, carrying an emotional force that Bearden describes as “utterly free of sentimentality.”
Sugar cane, the foundation of the plantation economy in the Caribbean, is a constant, yet ever-changing presence throughout Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The long, sharp-edged stalks remind viewers of the verdure of the tropics and the ever-present threat of colonial tyranny.
In the first print of the series, “The Birth of Toussaint,” Lawrence evoked the tenderness and vulnerability of mother and baby. Framed by the dark beams and rafters of their small cabin, their heads poking out from under a blanket of deep, rich blue and red like the colors of the Haitian flag, the scene carries a profound sense of quiet and serenity. Silhouetted against the sky and filling the one small window, sugar cane stalks rise and twist, making the wind visible.
The mother’s watchful eyes are echoed, in the next print, in the observant gaze of the youthful L’Ouverture, dressed in the tall hat and livery of a coachman and driving a team of horses past men harvesting the same crop. Mustard yellow serves as a powerful accent, from the workers’ scythes to the reins of the horses to the buttons on the coachman’s coat. As is often the case with Lawrence, color provides a subtle, unifying force, revealing the interconnectedness of everyone and everything.
For his portrait of the Haitian commander, Lawrence borrowed the full regalia of L’Ouverture’s military uniform from historical portraits while rejecting the tendency of earlier artists, admiring of L’Ouverture or not, to lighten his skin color. In Lawrence’s version, L’Ouverture’s white ruff collar and hackle of white feathers contrast vividly with his dark complexion, deepened further by shadow. Scholar Philip Kaisary wrote that this portrait “must be seen as a radical contestation of the racial denigration in earlier pictorial representation.”
Canebrakes upstage horse and rider in “The Opener.” The waving stalks turn blue and black to evoke stormy weather and the cloak of night. The rolling eye and bared teeth of the galloping horse reflect the terror of war, as L’Ouverture’s powerful gaze is turned on the viewer, drawing us into the struggle.
In the print “Contemplation,” the familiar form of the cane stalks is transformed into the flickering flames of a candle as L’Ouverture is seen absorbed in study of political statecraft. The revolutionary leader and intellectual humanist – who spoke West African Fon, Haitian Kreyòl (Creole), and French – wrote extensively about his life and ideas and promulgated the Saint-Domingue Constitution of 1801.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s response was the naval expedition of 20,000 men, portrayed in Lawrence’s print “Flotilla.” The threatening power of the French navy bearing down on the shores of Haiti is magnified by the repetition of identical warships and tricolor flags stretching all the way to the horizon, where a single bobbing vessel seems to suggest there are many more on the way.
The French invaders captured L’Ouverture, not in battle but through trickery and deceit. This tragedy is movingly illustrated in the crisscrossed swords of his captors in the panel “Deception.” Taken back to France, he died in prison in 1803 at the age of 60. The same year, after nearly 13 years of war, Haitian revolutionaries finally defeated French forces and, under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the newly independent republic of Haiti was proclaimed on New Year’s Day 1804. “While the Haitians owed their successful revolution to both men,” wrote author and activist Randall Robinson, “they owed their keen sense of African ethos and tradition largely to L’Ouverture, who was the ceaseless shaper of a shared self-owned black consciousness.”
In the series’ final panel, “To Preserve their Freedom,” Jacob Lawrence pays homage with his characteristic sincerity and compassion to the courage of the Haitian people, while recognizing the unfinished nature of their struggle for justice and freedom.
All images are courtesy of The Lunder Collection in honor of Colby College President David A. Greene and Carolyn Greene.