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Jacob Lawrence painted aptly-named Depression while receiving psychiatric care at Hillside Hospital in Queens, New York.

A visionary painter and visual storyteller, Lawrence produced an immense body of work in his lengthy career. Lawrence’s Hospital series, which includes Depression, strays from the norm for Lawrence who is known for his depiction of African American subjects. While many artists of his caliber have characteristically attention-grabbing antics or larger than life personalities, Lawrence was not interested in stardom. It’s possible that one of the stressors for Lawrence during this time was the fact that he did not fit this mold.

He was a quiet man with a simple life: a wife that he loved, a job as a professor and his painting. He experienced his first burst of fame when in 1941 his Migration series was featured in Fortune Magazine, and the publication made history as the first major magazine to feature the work of an African American artist. Later in his life Lawrence recognized this moment as the most exposure he received in his entire career. And the young man was only 24 years old! Instead of continuing on the path toward fame, Lawrence was left stressed and exhausted. He retreated to the center for the better part of a year, painting various works like Depression in which he uncharacteristically paints his subjects as hopeless and static. Like a child television star, maybe Lawrence had reached fame a bit too fast and needed a little respite.

In the second half of the 20th century, Lawrence adventured and experimented (Lagos! Teaching workshops in Nigeria!), keeping his profile low but still producing acclaimed work. Nothing that he produced hereafter reached the status of cultural phenomena like Migration did, but his works continued to visibilize the black experience through poignant social realism. Lawrence even wrote and illustrated children’s books during the 60s, attempting to depict the African American experience a way in a way that children could digest and empathize. Lawrence’s Hospital series does not depict the black experience rather than reflect on the often silent struggle of mental illness. By depicting uncomfortable and stigmatized scenes, Hospital series quietly pushes boundaries.