Urban Realism and the American Scene

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
Bar-b-que, 1942
Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1

Object-Jacob Lawrence, Bar-b-que

The painter Jacob Lawrence is best known for his candid and expressive portrayals of twentieth-century African American life. Bar-b-que belongs to a group of strikingly modernist works set in Harlem that he made during a time when this large African American New York City neighborhood was renowned for its cultural vibrancy. The watercolor depicts a barbecue restaurant filled with customers. A white-hatted cook prepares flaming slabs of pork ribs and roasted chickens in a street-facing kitchen as several adults and a child stand transfixed at the window. Bar-b-que features a kind of eatery common in the black South transplanted to New York City—just one reflection of the Great Migration, when from roughly 1916 to 1970, some 6 million African Americans, including Lawrence’s own family, left their rural Southern homes for cities in the North, Midwest, and West.

Learn more about this watercolor on the Terra Foundation website.


Perspective

Renowned modernist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) spent six decades chronicling the African American struggle for economic justice and political freedom. In the Depression-era art workshops of Harlem, Lawrence worked with brown paper and color, learning to see patterned resemblances in the world around him. He developed a lifelong attachment to tempera paint and aqueous media, and a pictorial language that articulated the blunt emotional and physical realities of working-class life in the city’s streets and tenements. The visual potency of Lawrence’s compositions was matched by his power to synthesize and portray broad historical and economic trends. Given their bold figure-ground relationships, his subjects are usually immediately recognizable. Plumbing his content, however, is like solving a puzzle by discerning relationships between word, shape, and color.

Bar-b-que is one of thirty Harlem subjects Lawrence painted in 1942–43, including rent strikes, stairwells, toilets, schoolrooms, libraries, subway commuters, rooftops, bars and bootleg whiskey, free clinics, and pool rooms. Many bear concise captions that read like excerpts from the official publications of the New York City Housing Authority. In Bar-b-que, passersby dressed in Sunday finery stop on the sidewalk to look at a tall display of ribs and chickens turning on spits in an open window; through a narrow door we see the restaurant’s full booths and bar stools—a vision of plenty and relaxation.

The carmine tiles of the rotisserie oven match the sizzling red letters on the restaurant sign spelling out the painting’s title. Given its prominence, one may assume that the word is important, and, as with other juxtapositions of word and image in Lawrence’s narratives, the subject of temporal elision or culturally specific encoding. The term “barbecue,” for example, may derive from the Haitian Creole “barbacoa”— meat prepared over a framework of sticks; such open-flame cooking was practiced in West Africa by the ancestors of American slaves, and later became a frequent part of outdoor “Juneteenth” events celebrating the abolition of slavery in the rural South.

Like the lives of African Americans moving north to escape Jim Crow laws, this laden food culture has been reframed vertically in an urban, multistory brick structure with a storefront and upstairs apartments. The rhythmic cadences of the doorway and windows, articulated in high-keyed greens and blues that may suggest longed-for foliage and sky, provide relief to the relentless red-brown grid of the built environment. A pastoral green restaurant floor leads from the sidewalk, past the black clientele, and into a kitchen in which we can see a black chef, who may well be the proprietor.

Elizabeth Hutton Turner
University Professor, Modern Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA


    Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
    Bar-b-que, 1942
    Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1

    Urban Realism and the American Scene

    William Glackens (1870–1938)
    Bal Bullier, c. 1895
    Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 32 in. (60.5 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.59
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    The Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1898–99
    Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (46.0 x 36.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.123
    Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
    Theater Scene, 1903
    Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. (32.4 x 39.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.136
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    Salem Willows, 1904
    Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 34 1/4 in. (66.7 x 87.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.120
    George Luks (1866–1933)
    Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park, c. 1918
    Oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 36 1/8 in. (76.7 x 91.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.87
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Sylvester, 1914
    Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 in. (81.2 x 66 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.2
    Rockwell Kent (1882–1971)
    Cranberrying, Monhegan, c. 1907
    Oil on canvas, 28 1/16 x 38 1/4 in. (71.3 x 97.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mr. Dan Burne Jones. Image © Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection., C1983.4
    George Bellows (1882–1925)
    The Palisades, 1909
    Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 1/8 in. (76.2 x 96.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.10
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Figure in Motion, 1913
    Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69
    Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
    Slaves, 1925
    Oil on cotton duck mounted on board, 66 7/16 x 72 3/8 in. (168.8 x 183.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2003.4
    Walter Ufer (1876–1936)
    Builders of the Desert, 1923
    Oil on canvas laid down on aluminum, 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.3 x 127.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.174
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Chicago, 1930
    Watercolor, over graphite, on cream wove watercolor paper, 13 7/8 x 20 in. (35.2 x 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 1998.4
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Pip and Flip, 1932
    Tempera on canvas mounted on canvas, 48 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (122.6 x 122.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ., 1999.96
    Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891–1981)
    Between Acts, 1935
    Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 in. (100.3 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2009.1
    Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
    Bucks County Barn, 1940
    Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (46.7 x 72.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.135
    Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
    After Church, 1941
    Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 44 1/4 in. (61.9 x 112.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Heirs of Josephine Hopper/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.77
    Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
    Bar-b-que, 1942
    Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1
    Walt Kuhn (1877–1949)
    Clown with Drum, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 60 7/8 x 41 3/8 in. (154.6 x 105.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.172
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Sierra Madre at Monterrey, 1943
    Watercolor with touches of wiping, over a charcoal underdrawing, on heavyweight textured ivory wove watercolor paper, 21 1/4 x 29 3/4 in. (54.0 x 75.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.18