Jacob Lawrence, American, 1967
(tempera on Masonite panel)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Wars often divide communities. Let’s meet a brave American heroine who lived to see a devastating war that would divide the United States and pit citizen against citizen. Do you know what this war between the North and South is called? It is called the American Civil War (1861-1865).
The artist who made this painting said he wanted to tell a story about courage. Look at the people in this painting. Each one of them is expressing deeply felt emotion. What are they feeling? How do their gestures express what they are feeling? Why don’t you act out the different roles of the people in this painting? Try to copy their postures and expressions exactly. Don’t forget to copy their hand gestures and their facial expressions as well. Now let’s pretend we’re making a movie about them. Let’s make up dialogue. I’ll go first. My dialogue is for the woman in the center of the painting who is wearing a white skirt. Her one hand is holding a gun, and her other hand and arm seem to be pushing the man in front of her forward. Look at how her one foot is planted firmly in the ground and seems to be springing forward. Indeed, her whole body seems to be pushing the man in front of her forward. How so? Her body creates a diagonal line that creates energy and action. Perhaps she is saying: “Move faster or we’ll get caught!” Now it is your turn. What is the man in front doing? His one hand is covering his face, and his other hand is stretched out behind him. He seems to be dragging his feet and leaning backward. How do these gestures express what he is feeling? Is he fearful? Is he refusing to go any further? What do you think is he saying? Make up dialogue. What about the man at the end? Why is he looking backward? Is he looking out for some sort of danger? He seems to be creeping forward and crouching, and his hand looks tense. What about the expression on his face? What is he feeling? Is there terror in his eye? What is he saying? Make up dialogue.
What clues are there in the painting that tell you about these people? They are poor. They don’t have any shoes. The men don’t have any shirts. They aren’t carrying anything. What time is it? It is nighttime. Look at the upper right hand corner. There is a dark new moon in an inky blue sky. Which person do you notice first? Is it the woman in the center who is holding a gun? How does the artist make us look at her first? She is in the center. Her white skirt pops. Her skirt takes up a lot of space. Look at her arms. How would you describe her? She is a strong woman. Her arms are strong and muscular.
Do the people in this painting look like they would in a photograph or in real life? No, they don’t. The artist left out many of the details. Look at the woman behind the woman with the gun. What is she holding in her arms? Is it a baby? How do you know it is a baby? There are few details. Can you tell it is a baby by the way the woman is holding him or by the fact that he is in swaddling clothes? The artist removed many of the details and only painted what he thought was most important for telling his story.
This painting shows us a real person named Harriet Tubman (circa 1820-1913). She is the figure in the center of the painting, who is wearing the white skirt. What do you know about Harriet Tubman? Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. She was raised in Maryland and worked in the fields. In Maryland it was a crime to teach a slave to read or write. At great personal risk, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and fled to the North. Instead of keeping safe, she went back to the South many times and rescued many slaves. In this painting, Harriet Tubman is bravely leading slaves to freedom. What character traits do heroes like Harriet Tubman possess? They possess courage, self-discipline, perseverance, integrity, respect, responsibility and good judgment.
Do you know what the secretive network along which the slaves fled to the North and Canada was called? It was called the Underground Railroad. During Harriet Tubman’s lifetime, many people thought the person leading all these slaves to freedom was a man. She was simply known by the name Moses. Do you know why Harriet Tubman, who led her people to freedom, would be called by this name? In the Bible, Moses led his people, the Jews, to freedom across the desert and to their Promised Land. Look closely. What is Harriet Tubman doing? She is pushing her people forward to freedom under the cover of a moonless night. The painting is called Forward. Describe the landscape across which the slaves are running. Is the land exposed to the elements of nature just like the people are exposed to danger? What do you think? Will Harriet Tubman and her fellow slaves get caught or will they escape to freedom along this secretive network?
New ideas lead to events that spur change. What changes were set in motion by the events of the American Civil War? The American Civil War abolished slavery and set in motion a struggle for equality and the rights of citizenship. Eventually through many years of struggle, women and African Americans were given the rights of citizenship. What is one important right they were given? Women were given the right to vote, while African Americans were given the right to vote without discrimination. Although these rights weren’t given to women and African Americans nation-wide until after Harriet Tubman’s death, she would have been pleased for she had spent most of her life working for equality.
Would you like to see Forward in person? All you have to do is visit the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. Forward is in the American galleries at the museum. Or perhaps you would like a tour. Tours of the collection are given daily, except for Monday when the museum is closed to the public. If you prefer, you can contact the museum ahead of time and arrange for you and your friends to have a private tour. I’m sure a docent at the museum would be happy to show you and your friends Forward and many other works of art. Whether you visit the museum on your own or have a tour with a docent, it will be well worth your time!