Profile: Gwendolyn Knight (1913-2005)

Gwendolyn Clarine Knight was an American artist who was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, in the West Indies.

Knight painted throughout her life but did not start seriously exhibiting her work until the 1970s. Her first retrospective was put on when she was nearly 90 years old, “Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight,” at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2003. Her teachers in the arts included the sculptor Augusta Savage (who obtained support for her from the Works Progress Administration) and Jacob Lawrence, whom she married in 1941 and remained married to until his death in 2000. During the course of her career, she received many awards, including the National Honor Award, and two honorary doctorate degrees, from University of Minnesota and Seattle University.

With her husband, Knight founded the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation in 2000, initially to support the early careers of professional artists. When Lawrence died, Knight disbanded the original foundation and changed her will so that most of the couple’s assets went to support children’s programs. Today the Foundation’s activities are devoted to the maintenance of a website that had been developed in 2000. The U.S. copyright representative for the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.

Early life and education

Knight was born in 1913 in Barbados, West Indies. At the age of seven, her mother entrusted her to close friends with whom she immigrated to the United States. She and her foster family first lived in St. Louis, Missouri. At age 13, she and her foster family moved to Harlem (New York City), where she graduated from Wadleigh High School in 1930. From 1931 to 1933 she attended Howard University, studying fine arts. The depression caused financial hardship, causing Knight to drop out before receiving her degree. Knight subsequently returned to New York City, where she was employed by the Works Projects Administration as an assistant to the muralist, Charles Alston. She continued to study art at the Harlem Community Art Center, where she was mentored by Augusta Savage. 

In 1934 Knight joined a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural project, where she met her future husband and fellow painter, Jacob Lawrence. The couple were married in 1941. In 1946, Josef Albers invited them to teach at Black Mountain College, which had begun integrating and incorporating African-American culture into its curriculum a few years prior to the couple’s time there.  During the 1950s, the couple worked and lived in New York. Then in 1964, they traveled to Nigeria. In 1971, Lawrence accepted a position at the University of Washington’s School of Art. The couple moved to Seattle, where they lived as active members of the artist community and of the city itself. Knight even procured support from The National Links, Inc. for her first one-woman show, which was developed in 1976. This exhibit sparked a greater desire for her work and the acquiring of her pieces by national museums.

Work

Knight’s work focused on narrative paintings depicting the life, culture, and history of African Americans, through still life, portraits, and urban scenes. The majority of her career produced oil portraits of friends, figure studies of dancers, and watercolor and gouache landscapes. However, her work began to shift in the 1990s incorporating lyrical depictions of animals through etchings and monoprints. Her inspiration came from spontaneous responses to her surroundings, as well as African dance, sculpture, and theater.

Exhibitions

Knight did not begin exhibiting her work publicly until the 1970s. Knight had several major solo exhibitions: Seattle Art Museum (1976), Virginia Lacy Jones Gallery, Atlanta University (1988), Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle (1994), Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, at the Tacoma Art Museum (2003) and at DC Moore Gallery, New York in 2003. Her work was included in several group exhibitions, including the 1967 show, Portrayal of the Negroes in American Painting at the Forum Gallery.

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