Bar and Grill

  • Jacob Lawrence, Bar and Grill, 1941, gouache on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 2010.52

In New Orleans, Lawrence experienced firsthand the daily reality of Jim Crow segregation, where legislation required that he ride in the back of city buses and live in a racially segregated neighborhood. His anger is apparent in Bar and Grill, which shows the interior of a café with a wall that divides the space into two distinct realms – one occupied by whites, the other by blacks. Lawrence says little about the individuals beyond their skin color and the way they are treated (customers on the left are cooled by a ceiling fan), but the skewed vantage point from behind the bar emphasizes the artificiality of the two separate worlds.

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012
Jacob Lawrence painted Bar and Grill shortly after arriving in New Orleans in late summer 1941. Although he had just finished the sixty panels of his epic Migration series, he had only second-hand knowledge of the South, the point of origin for thousands of rural blacks who had made the great migration to industrial cities of the urban north. The South was a new experience for the young New Yorker. Lawrence’s mother had come from Virginia, his father from South Carolina, so as he remarked in 1961: “[In 1941] if you weren’t born in the South, your parents were. Your life had a whole Southern flavor; it wasn’t an alien experience to you even if you had never been there.”

Bar and Grill shows the interior of a café that is divided by a floor-to-ceiling wall that separates the commercial space into two realms — one occupied by whites, the other by blacks. Apart from obvious segregation by race, the image also reveals status. White customers drink in comfort, cooled by a ceiling fan above. The number of figures occupying each side of the room reflected the white-black ratio of city residents.

Living in a southern city where legislation required that he ride in the back of city buses and live in a racially segregated neighborhood, Lawrence discovered the daily reality of Jim Crow segregation. This experience emerged in Bar and Grill and other paintings that dealt with what he called the life of Negroes in New Orleans.”

Several of Lawrence’s New Orleans paintings were featured along with a group of panels from the Migration series in a groundbreaking exhibition, Negro Art in America, which opened at Edith Gregor Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City on December 8, 1941, the day the United States declared war on Germany and Japan. The show was a huge success for Lawrence, who was celebrated by black and white critics alike. Halpert continued to push Lawrence’s work, and two years later, when Lawrence was drafted to serve as a steward in the Coast Guard, she persuaded his commanding officers to provide studio space so he could continue to paint.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2010

Bar and Grill
Not on view
16 3422 34 in. (42.557.8 cm)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design

Mediums Description
gouache on paper
  • Figure group
  • Recreation – leisure – eating and drinking
  • Architecture Interior – commercial – tavern
Object Number
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI

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