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Gallery Text

A prodigy of the Harlem Renaissance, an influential cultural movement of the 1920s and ’30s, Lawrence forged a distinctive approach to painting that drew on elements of cubism and modern design to create scenes of everyday life as well as historical narratives. This kaleidoscopic composition depicts the dining room of an elegant mixed-race establishment, with a ventriloquist and a garishly dressed dummy sitting at the center. The work is one of a series of twelve paintings featuring performance-based themes that Lawrence made after an eleven-month hospitalization for psychiatric care. Some scholars have interpreted this painting as an expression of Lawrence’s illness and feelings of isolation. Others have seen it as one of many works in which Lawrence employs the mask motif, prominent in American art and culture in the 1950s, to investigate issues of African American race and identity, as well as the social anxieties fueled by Cold War politics.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
2008.103
People
Jacob Lawrence, American (Atlantic City, NJ 1917 - 2000 Seattle, WA)
Title
Ventriloquist
Classification
Paintings
Work Type
painting
Date
1952
Culture
American
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/326529
Location
Level 1, Room 1330, Modern and Contemporary Art, New Images
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Physical Descriptions
Medium
Egg tempera over graphite underdrawing on gessoed hardboard
Dimensions
50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in.)
framed: 76.5 x 85.4 x 7 cm (30 1/8 x 33 5/8 x 2 3/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.r.: Jacob Lawrence 52
Provenance
[The Alan Gallery, New York], sold; to Joanne Stern, New York, (c. 1953-2007), sold; [through Christie's, New York]; to Harvard University Art Museums, 2008.
State, Edition, Standard Reference Number
Standard Reference Number
Nesbett P52-07
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Daniel A. Pollack, Class of 1960, American Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, Class of 1907, by exchange
Copyright
© The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Accession Year
2008
Object Number
2008.103
Division
Modern and Contemporary Art
Contact
am_moderncontemporary@harvard.edu
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Publication History

Peter T. Nesbett, Jacob Lawrence: Paintings Drawings and Murals (1935-1999), A Catalogue Raisonne (2000), no. P52-07 (ill.), p. 122

Patricia Hills, Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA, 2009), p. 227, fig. 166, ill.

Exhibition History

Performance: A Series of New Paintings in Tempera by Jacob Lawrence, The Downtown Gallery, 01/27/1953 - 02/14/1953

Re-View: S118 European & American Art since 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 09/13/2008 - 04/09/2011

Re-View: European and American Art Since 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/03/2011 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 1330 Mid-Century Figurative, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 08/11/2017; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 04/05/2018 - 01/01/2050

Lines of Influence, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, 09/07/2017 - 02/04/2018

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at am_moderncontemporary@harvard.edu