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Jacob Lawrence Painting Missing for Half a Century Goes to Auction

A historical scene from the Chesapeake-Leopard affair (the 1807 incident that led to the War of 1812), the painting is headed for auction on April 5.

Jacob Lawrence, “19. Tension on the High Seas” (1956), tempera on board (image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)

A missing painting from Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle . . . From the History of the American People series, a work effectively lost in an unknown private collection, has resurfaced after decades off the radar. The 19th panel of the series, “Tension on the High Seas,” shows a British naval officer hovering menacingly over three bound and wounded American captives, their heads hung so low that they disappear into their shoulders. A historical scene from the Chesapeake–Leopard affair (the 1807 incident that led to the War of 1812), the painting is headed for auction at Swann Auction Galleries on April 5. It’s expected to sell for between $75,000 and $100,000.

The painting’s discovery “brings to light an important missing link in our understanding of a defining, yet lesser-known series in Lawrence’s career,” Elsa Smithgall, a curator at The Phillips Collection, wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “It provides hope that the other four panels, whose whereabouts have eluded us so far, will at last emerge. This particular panel, with its striking depiction of the British impressment of American sailors, is one of several from the series that examine the history of the War of 1812. As such, it brings a fuller, richer context to the mounting drama of Lawrence’s overall visual narrative.​” (Smithgall organized an exhibition of 12 works from the Struggle series at the Washington, DC museum in 2015.) 

When he first came up with the idea for the series in the 1950s, Lawrence intended Struggle as a 60-work book project. “He wanted to convey the history of the entire American people,” Nigel Freeman, director of the African-American Fine Art department at Swann Auction Galleries, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. But Lawrence ended up painting only 30 panels (covering 1776–1817), and the book project never materialized. Created in the mid-1950s, the complete series of 30 panels was displayed only twice, in 1956 and 1958. It was acquired in its entirety by a Long Island collector named William Meyers in 1959, who proceeded to sell the works off individually throughout the 1960s, Freeman said, dispersing them far and wide.

In 2000, on the publication of Lawrence’s catalogue raisonné (He remains the only African-American artist with a catalogue raisonné of his complete works, Freeman said), it was discovered that six of his panels from the Struggle series had gone missing. One, of the Boston Tea Party, has been found since, but until now, there were five works still unaccounted for. (As Smithgall noted, four panels currently remain at large.)

The Struggle series hasn’t been seen in its entirety since 1958, but the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts hopes to amend that. According to an Elizabeth Hutton Turner article published in The Magazine Antiques last year, the museum plans to organize a touring exhibition of the whole Struggle series in 2020. Maybe by then, at least one more of the missing panels will have re-emerged.

Update, 4/5/2018: Jacob Lawrence’s “19. Tension on the High Seas” (1956) sold for $413,000 (including buyer’s premium) at today’s auction, quadrupling the high end of its pre-sale estimate of $75,000–100,000.

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