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Randolph history professor, art historian to discuss ‘John Brown, Jacob Lawrence, & the Morality of Terror’

A portrait of Jacob Lawrence (left) next to his painting of John Brown’s Arsenal, 1941, gouache on panel, 19 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches.

A portrait of Jacob Lawrence (left) next to his painting of John Brown’s Arsenal, 1941, gouache on panel, 19 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches.

On Sunday, March 17, John d’Entremont, Randolph’s Theodore H. Jack Professor of History, and Kathleen Placidi, a local art historian, will examine the violent antislavery exploits of John Brown (1800-1859) and his multiracial band of insurgents as well as his polarizing impact and the ways in which American artists have portrayed him. The event is free and open to the public and will begin at 2 p.m. in the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College.

An American abolitionist who advocated use of armed insurrection to overthrow slavery, John Brown is best known for leading a raid in October 1859 on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia). Brown seized the armory, intending to arm slaves with weapons and start a liberation movement. However, only a small number of slaves joined his revolt and within 36 hours, Brown’s men had fled or were killed or captured. Brown was tried, found guilty, and hanged for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as for the murder of five men and inciting a slave insurrection. His actions and violent tactics as an abolitionist have made him a controversial historical figure, considered by some as a heroic martyr and others a madman and terrorist.

One of the works d’Entremont and Placidi will examine, John Brown’s Arsenal (1941) by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), is part of the College’s collection, and is on view at the Maier as part of an ongoing exhibition of works from the collection. John Brown’s Arsenal is a stand-alone piece inspired by Lawrence’s series, The Life of John Brown. The painting depicts a still life of the bayonets, rifles, and ammunition inspired by Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry.

Known for his portrayal of African-American life, Lawrence gained national recognition in 1941, with the exhibition of his 60-panel Migration Series at New York’s Downtown Gallery. The series depicted the great migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north. Throughout his long career, Lawrence was recognized with major traveling exhibitions organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1960), the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974), and The Phillips Collection (2001). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983.

The purchase of this work was made possible by Centennial Campaign Funds donated by Suzanne Goodman Elson ’59, 1998.

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