Ironers by Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 1943.


by Nathan Birnbaum

This painting plays into the labeling of Jacob Lawrence’s early work as “primitive,” bringing to mind descriptors such as “folksy” and the “common-man.” Clearly, we have a piece that is directly addressing the social, political, and economic underpinnings of a cultural task.

Both in the post-Emancipation era and before, during, and after the Great Migration of African Americans to the North, black women found themselves pigeonholed into domestic labor jobs, among them ironing and washing the clothing of more affluent white families. Although this work could be seen as demeaning, these women in fact came to look upon the work as a way to express their new-found freedom, a theme addressed in a book entitled To ‘Joy My Freedom by Tera W. Hunter (which ironically chose this particular painting for its cover).  When competing with other ethnic populations for jobs in the economic sector, washing was fiercely defended, even violently at times, as an African-American trade. However, after moving North in the Great Migration (and I suspect that Lawrence’s rendering comes from what he observed in Harlem in the late 30s and early 40s), this work not only came to symbolize entrenchment in the lower class sector, but long hours slaving over what amounted to labor intensive work for little pay.

But determination to embrace identity, like that in the post-Emancipation era, was a characteristic of the New Negro which Lawrence famously addressed in his Migration Series. According to one scholar, he “simply interpreted life as he saw it” and Lawrence himself might appropriately comment that this photo addresses the fact that African Americans “didn’t have a physical slavery” but rather, an “economic slavery.”

In terms of aesthetic qualities, Lawrence’s use of broad, square, large, and block-like figures not only speaks to the theme of domestic labor, but immediately brings out the strength of the women. The figures jump out of the photo, expanding the viewing capacity of one examining the painting, and the fact that there are multiple women serves to tread the line between sympathy for and truthful depiction of entrenchment in the labor force. Lawrence employs techniques that typified Modernist art, such as repetition of forms, reduction and simplicity of these forms (for example, there is no differentiation in the faces, clothing, and expressions of the women, as Lawrence chooses to leave these details out entirely), and furthermore, he chooses largely arbitrary colors for his canvass. Much of the painting appears superficially flat, except for the irons, which might serve to highlight the heaviness and cyclical nature of the labor.

But given the background that we can ascertain from the historical information I addressed earlier, Ironers easily fits Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins’ claim that Lawrence “not only was telling the history of the Negro, but also introducing viewers to a new way of seeing objects and compositional relationships.”  These women clearly have a defined relationship with their work.  And perhaps seeing the prominence of their irons and the size of their working arms serves to present domesticity in a new way, removed from a society that was deep in the throes of World War II.  Washing of the clothes wasn’t grounded in war but rather it was grounded in everyday life for these women, and had been historically as well.

–Nathan Birnbaum

Further Reading:

An Argument for a Core, By Nathan Birnbaum, 8/1/09

“A New Era of Engagement”, But for Whom? by Nathan Birnbaum, 7/15/09

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One Response to JACOB LAWRENCE

  1. julianne seeman says:

    I am looking for a poster of Jacob Lawrence: The Ironers.

    ANy help in finding this poster will be appreciated.

    Thanks much.


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