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Putting Himself on Canvas

Zelda and Josef Jaffee saw a colorful African American painting in 1964 as they strolled into a tiny art gallery on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They loved the painting's vivid colors and its challenging subject.

The painting, titled Taboo, which means something that is forbidden, illustrates the wedding of two couples. One couple is an African American bride and a white groom, and the other is a white bride and an African American groom.

In the painting, both men are dressed in tuxedos. The white groom seems to have a worried look on his face as he gazes at his African American bride. Some would say the groom is unsure about the marriage. The African American groom has a confused look on his face, as if he too is questioning the ceremony. Both women, though, are staring straight ahead, as if they are ready to be married.

Taboo was painted in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, a period when African Americans sought legal and racial equality with white people. The painting expresses artist Jacob Lawrence's hope that the races might one day get along. The Jaffees bought the painting and took it home with them. Taboo taught their son, Harry, about equality.

“When Lawrence painted [Taboo] in 1963, intermarriage was illegal in many southern states,” Harry Jaffee said. “Hanging on a wall of our home in Philadelphia, Taboo worked its way into my head and heart.”

“Filled with a Basic Love”

Lawrence's art is still working its way into the hearts of people. The Whitney Museum in New York City put 200 of his paintings on display.

One of the centerpieces of the exhibition was a series of paintings on the migration, or movement, of African Americans from the South to the North during the 1930s.

Lawrence's work was also part of a traveling Smithsonian Art Museum exhibition that toured the United States.

Many people consider Lawrence, who died in 2000, an important American artist. His paintings recorded the hardships and hopes of African Americans.

“I can't think of another American artist of his generation whose works, even the ones that tell tragic stories, are at the same time so true, so modest, and so filled with a basic love,” wrote Michael Kimmelman, an art critic for the New York Times.

Harlem Renaissance

Although Lawrence traveled the world, he was most at home in Harlem, a community in New York City. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African American writers, artists, musicians, and social activists worked in Harlem in the 1920s. Harlem was then a place that vibrated with excitement, promise, and hope.

At the time, Harlem was jumping as jazz musicians played in such nightspots as the Cotton Club. Poets, such as Langston Hughes, wrote about living in a racist society. Social activist W.E.B. Dubois said that equality for African Americans could be achieved only by teaching racial pride and African cultural heritage.

For his part, Lawrence used his talent to give the world a picture of the struggles African Americans faced in the United States.

The Painter's Canvas

Lawrence began his career painting scenes about slavery. One of those paintings, of hands reaching up into the night sky, depicts the fear of enslaved people who are trying to escape.

Many people consider his images of the rough-and-tumble life of Harlem's sidewalks, streets, and pool halls their favorites.

One such painting, Tombstones, seems to be a scene of people relaxing on and around a stoop on a hot summer's day in Harlem. A stoop is the steps leading up to house. But a closer look reveals a woman cradling a baby, plants, and tombstones. This image suggests the cycle of birth, life, and death to some.

Lawrence said that while painting African American life, he was in some ways painting himself and his own life.

“My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life,” he once said. “If he has developed this philosophy, he does not put paint on canvas; he puts himself on canvas.”