In the late 1950s, the prolific painter Jacob Lawrence finished “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” a 30-piece series that details the early years of American democracy. The collection was different from what curators expected from Lawrence — he was a Black artist working in the mid-20th century, so they imagined him portraying Black culture, Black history, and Black people.
“But ‘The American Struggle’ was not that,” said Lydia Gordon, coordinating curator of “The American Struggle” exhibition at Peabody Essex. “It was a complicated view of early American history and no one wanted to touch it.”
That’s likely why Lawrence’s art dealer was unable to sell the pieces, Gordon said. It may also explain why the panels spent almost 60 years scattered across the country.
Five years ago, PEM curators began a monumental effort to reconstitute all 30 pieces of “Struggle” and organize a traveling exhibition. The show finally opened in Salem in January 2020, but with only 25 of the original panels. By October, Panel 16 had been located when the exhibit was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. By late last month, another had emerged from its longtime hiding spot: in the dining room of a nurse’s apartment on the Upper West Side.
In both cases, the owners reached out to the Met after learning about the show and the surprising story behind the art on their walls. Both have opted to remain anonymous while lending their works to the exhibition.
Panel 28, titled “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840—115,773,” suffered wear and tear over the years, with missing flecks of paint and color. PEM responded by taking in the painting and working to stabilize it, with help from the show’s final two stops: the Seattle Art Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. They plan to put Panel 28 on display when the exhibit opens in Seattle next week.
While finding Panel 16 last fall was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime event, the discovery of Panel 28 gives curators hope for a total reunion. Now there are just three panels missing.
“Finding the second [painting] was against all odds,” said Elizabeth Hutton Turner, an art history professor at the University of Virginia who co-curated the show at PEM. “The fact that they were discovered in such quick succession makes me hopeful. We should be able to find them all — but we have to keep the candle burning.”
For Turner, who worked closely with Lawrence in the 1990s, it’s impossible to know the full story of the series until we see all the “Struggle” pieces together.
“This series is one narrative and one work,” she said. “It just has 30 parts.”
The remaining three pieces are likely hiding in plain sight, Turner added. Lawrence’s work attracted givers, builders, visionaries, “people that we can all recognize.”
“Those panels are probably in the home of teachers, people who care for others,” she said. “And I can’t wait until they’re all back together again so we can finally see Lawrence’s whole picture.”
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.