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Frame by Frame

Jacob Lawrence and the ‘Playroom’

Currier Museum of Art

MANCHESTER, N.H. — I think of this brilliantly cramped little painting by Jacob Lawrence as a mid-century, African-American version of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” the John Singer Sargent painting before which thousands of art lovers swoon pretty much every week at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Henry James described Sargent’s picture as “a happy play world . . . of charming children.” Lawrence’s “Playroom,” as it is titled, feels different. It hangs in a small gallery at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, which received it from the collector and benefactor Sandra Lane only last year. Painted in flat, unyielding colors in egg tempera on hard board, it shows three girls playing with various dolls.

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What is it all about, this playing with dolls? What are girls thinking, what are they working through, when they dress and undress them and pull them apart?

No child psychologist, I wouldn’t dare say. But I am pretty sure that Julia, the 4-year-old girl toying idly with her doll in the foreground of Sargent’s great painting, relates to her little blonde doll in ways different from the African-American girls interrogating their alien dolls in Lawrence’s picture.

When he painted “Playroom” in 1957, Lawrence already had a reputation as a successful, mid-career painter. He was well known for tackling aspects of African-American history in images that were each part of a series. But in the ’50s, having endured a spell in hospital for depression, he began painting scenes from everyday life. Some of these works were inspired by his time in hospital, others by his fascination with the theater.

Most touched on aspects of race and the mysteries of identity — identity thwarted, concocted, confused, arbitrarily imposed. Lawrence had read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which was published in 1952, and seemed to have a great impact on him.

The dolls in “Playroom” have been interpreted as belonging to different races and classes. It’s hard, looking at them, to be sure. But what is strong in the picture is the influence of Picasso.

“Playroom” has the same ambivalence and the same brushy manner as Picasso’s extended riffs on Velazquez’s masterpiece “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), which Picasso painted in the same year, 1957. “Las Meninas” also, as it happens, influenced Sargent’s “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.”

The shadow play in the background, in particular, evokes Picasso’s dreamlike Cubist confusions, and the adult figure in the background holds a fan in exactly the same manner as Picasso’s 1908 “Woman With a Fan,” made at the height of the Spaniard’s early fascination with African masks.

Nothing is simple in art history. Like children playing with dolls, artists are always trying on different identities. We envy their freedom. But Lawrence knew — perhaps more even than Picasso — that, for artist and child alike, there’s always a great deal at stake in such play.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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