Jacob Lawrence completed four large narrative series of paintings dedicated to major events or figures in black history before he began this set of twenty-two gouaches (opaque watercolors) about John Brown. The first four scenes establish Brown as a man of exceptional religious conviction who was so committed to the abolition of slavery in America that he suffered personal financial failure from his efforts for the cause. The middle seventeen compositions form succinct episodes that graphically tell the story from the beginning of Brown's formulation of plans to free slaves to his eventual raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The last two scenes revert to a characterization of Brown as an exceptionally strong believer in God who failed in the success of his guerilla attack and was executed for his crime.
Each of the twenty-two gouaches bears a long title by Lawrence that objectively describes the image. Lawrence does not judge Brown's actions, but it is in No. 21 that he perhaps captures the complexity, poignancy, and conviction of Brown's life. He depicts the abolitionist at the time of his capture as a figure in profile, head bent, covered by long hair, and holding a cross. Is Brown praying? Is he dejected? Does he regret his failure to seize the arsenal's guns? Does he regret the losses of lives on all sides of his assault on the military site? Was it worth being treasonous? Does he know he will hang for his actions? Does he care? And if so, how? Whether we as viewers answer any of these questions is not important. That Lawrence could compel us to think so expansively and ponder the magnitude of Brown's actions through this image is the point.
A hierarchy of importance dominated the subjects of art through much of history. At the top of the list claiming the greatest significance was history painting. Arguably, it is exactly that category of art into which Lawrence's John Brown series falls. Through his dedication to John Brown and similar consideration of historical topics- Toussant L’Ouverture in 1937, Harriet Tubman in 1938/39, Frederick Douglass in 1939/40, and the Migration of the Negro in 1941 -- Lawrence received acknowledgement as an important artist with a strong voice when he was just a young man.
During these early years of his career, Lawrence was mixing his own pigments, but unfortunately his recipe was not stable. He quickly corrected his formula in 1941 but not until after completing the John Brown series. Prior to making the adjustment, Lawrence's gouaches had and still have a tendency to microscopically flake off the paper when displayed in a vertical position for long periods of time. To preserve the gouaches without inhibiting the public from being able to see the series, the DIA commissioned Lawrence to transcribe the paintings into screenprints. From 1974 to 1977, Lawrence worked directly with DIA Curator Ellen Sharp and the master screenprinting firm of Ives-Sillman in New Haven, Connecticut, to bring to the prints the same power and sensibility as evident in the gouaches.
Bulletin of the DIA 86, no. 1/4 (2012): 31.