Pool Parlor

Artist: Jacob Lawrence (American, Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917–2000 Seattle, Washington)

Date: 1942

Medium: Watercolor and gouache on paper

Dimensions: 31 1/8 x 22 7/8 in. (79.1 x 58.1 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1942

Accession Number: 42.167

Rights and Reproduction: © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Lawrence's family settled in Harlem in 1930, and his gestation as an artist is linked to the community. His early training at the Utopia Children's House and then at the Harlem Art Workshop introduced him to materials that he would continue to use throughout his life. Tempera and other relatively opaque water-based paints applied to brown paper, illustration, and hardboard supports are a constant throughout his long and successful career. He studied with Charles Alston, the first salaried WPA art workshop director in Harlem, and he referred to Alston's workshop as a dynamic place of philosophical and technical debate. Alston's mentor had been Alain Locke, and he and his students took to heart Locke's call (articulated in 1925 in The New Negro) for African Americans to study African art, to find in this "classic background" a technical control, a discipline of style that would provide a depth of meaning to their work: "The African spirit is at its best in abstract decorative forms."

For Lawrence, a central drive was to communicate with the viewer, and his formal style of simple, flat planes, strong dynamic line, rhythmic geometries of shape, and saturated, primarily opaque color contributed importantly to that expression. As he explained in 1951, "For me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity, and strength. Universality so that it may be understood by all men. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good."

Pool Parlor chronicles the leisure life of the community in a tightly organized, sharply geometric and angular composition inspired by observation but simplified, made elemental in its paring down of form. This work was exhibited in the Artists for Victory exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1942, and won a $500 purchase prize.