Jacob Lawrence's Bar and Grill

These warm August afternoons often make me step inside of American Art not just to cool off, but to have an ah-ha moment with something that strikes me inside the museum: person or painting. Maybe it was the heat but the image that grabbed me today, Bar and Grill by Jacob Lawrence, was about quenching one's thirst while struggling with a deeper need: freedom. It's part of the exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, on view on the main floor of the museum through September 3.

Painted in 1941 when the artist left New York City for New Orleans, the image presents a split screen of life in the Jim Crow south. On the left, white customers are enjoying themselves. The bartender hangs with them. It even looks like they get a little food. On the right, a couple dances at the rear of the bar, while another—couple, distraught— converse (or not) at the bar. What separates the two scenes is the ceiling fan only provided for the group on the left. Its black blades could cut through the air but not through the oppressive and cruel everyday realities of life under Jim Crow.

View more works by Jacob Lawrence.