Jacob Lawrence, one of America's leading modern figurative painters and, from the beginning of his career in the 1930's, among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience, died yesterday at his home in Seattle after a long illness. He was 82.
Mr. Lawrence's paintings, often modest in size and conceived in narrative series, combined a finely-honed Cubist-inflected painting style, a gift for vivid storytelling and a social consciousness shaped by his memories of growing up in Harlem.
Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born on Sept. 17, 1917, in Atlantic City, N.J., the eldest of three children. His father, a railroad cook, deserted the family in 1924. The children lived in foster homes until joining their mother in Philadelphia, after which they moved to Harlem. There his education as an artist began when his mother enrolled him in classes at the Utopia Children's Center, an arts and crafts settlement house where met his first mentor, the artist Charles Alston.
After dropping out of high school at 16, Mr. Lawrence worked in a laundry and a printing plant and began to attend classes taught by Alston at the Harlem Art Workshop. As part of his studies, he regularly walked the 60-block distance between his home and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he developed a particular interest in the spare, expressive narrative paintings of the early Italian Renaissance.
At Alston's studio, he met most of the prominent cultural figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including the painters Aaron Douglas and William Johnson, and the writers Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In 1936, he produced his first significant body of paintings, satirical studies of Harlem street life, documenting the neighborhood's poverty. Both the Social Realist subject matter and expressive pared-down style that were the hallmarks of his art were in place.
In 1937, he began work on his first multipart narrative, the Toussaint L'Ouverture series, 41 small works done in water-passed tempera paint -- thereafter, his preferred medium -- on paper. Dramatizing Haiti's struggle for independence and focusing on the exploitation of farm workers by colonial settlers, the paintings' high colors and puzzled-together abstract patterns established the distinctive style for which Mr. Lawrence would gain fame.
Much of his other best-known work quickly followed. In 1938, he completed 32 paintings devoted to the life of Frederick Douglass, and in the next year a series of 31 more illustrating the life of Harriet Tubman. In 1940 he received a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that enabled him to rent a studio -- a rundown space with neither heat nor running water -- where he began the landmark series titled ''The Migration of the American Negro,'' chronicling the mass migration of Southern blacks to the North in search of work following World War I.
The series had personal resonance for the artist. His parents had been part of that migration, and from his childhood in Philadelphia he remembered that ''people in the neighborhood were always talking about a new family arriving. They'd be so poor that they'd gather coals that had dropped through the street grates and pick up old clothes when they could find them. When we got to New York, it was the same.''
The series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in 1941 and brought the artist national renown. Fortune magazine reproduced 26 of the images in its pages. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington vied to acquire the complete work. They finally purchased it jointly, dividing the paintings in half by odd and even numbers. It was last exhibited as a whole at the Modern in 1995. More than two dozen of the paintings are now on view in the museum's ''Making Choices'' exhibition.
In 1943, Mr. Lawrence joined the Coast Guard and was assigned to the Navy's first integrated troop carrier. With his captain's help he obtain a rank of petty officer, third class, which allowed him to continue working at art, with the stipulation that he depict Coast Guard life. A series of paintings that resulted was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1946 Mr. Lawrence was invited by Josef Albers to be an instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experience which had a formative effect on his future work as a teacher. He made Albers's Bauhaus method of teaching based on aesthetic principles of composition, line and color theory his own.
In October 1949, he had himself admitted to Hillside Hospital in Queens for what his doctor described as ''nervous difficulties neither particularly complicated nor unique.'' Mr. Lawrence remained in the hospital for nine months. After leaving, he returned to his earlier themes of city life, in paintings that became more intricately patterned; he described the series, titled ''Theatre,'' as a ''staccato-type-thing -- raw, sharp, rough.''
His main focus during the 1950's and 60's, though, was on the explosive political atmosphere surrounding racism in America. In his work from these years, he addressed the subjects of intermarriage and discrimination in public schools, and documented the progress of the civil rights movement.
In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria for an exhibition of his ''Migration'' series, then returned in 1964 to live and work there for nearly a year. By the end of the 1960's the look of his work had began to change somewhat. His signature primary-color palette muted toward gray, and his narrative assumed the crisp graphic quality of illustration. Political struggles were replaced by images of racial harmony, with blacks and whites working together.
Between the 1970's and 90's, he completed many commissioned pieces in the form of prints and murals. In 1997 he designed a 72-foot-long mosaic which is scheduled to be installed in the Times Square subway complex at Broadway and 42nd Street in 2001. He was still painting until a few weeks before his death, and was scheduled to have an exhibition of new work at D.C. Moore, his Manhattan gallery, in November. Instead, a memorial retrospective will be presented.
Mr. Lawrence was the subject of three career retrospectives. The first was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1960, the second at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 and the third at the Seattle Art Museum in 1986. A fourth retrospective is scheduled for the Phillips Collection for 2001.
His work is in the collection of numerous museums; those in New York include the Metropolitan Museum, the Modern, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Brooklyn Museum.
In addition to Black Mountain, he taught at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute, and the New School for Social Research, all in New York City, and at the Skowhegan School in Maine.
In 1970, he took a job as visiting artist at the University of Washington in Seattle and was appointed full professor the next year. He retired with emeritus status in 1986. Harvard University, Yale University, Howard University, Amherst College, and New York University were among the 18 schools that awarded him honorary degrees.
His non-academic honors included the National Medal of Arts, given to him by President George Bush, and the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor awarded by the N.A.A.C.P.
Mr. Lawrence was a meticulous and systematic craftsman. When working on a series, his method was fixed: after completing the preliminary drawings for the entire series, he laid the pages out across a room, then applied one color a time to each -- all the reds in one session, all the blues in the next -- thereby insuring tonal consistency throughout.
Equally crucial to quality control was the presence of his wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight, whose evaluating eye he relied through the 59 years of their marriage, and who survives him. In 1999, he and his wife established the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation for the creation, presentation and study of American art, with a particular emphasis on work by African-American artists. The Foundation is planning to establish an art center Harlem in the artist's name.
Mr. Lawrence's painting technique was spare, and his ideas complex. The same was true of his artistic credo. ''I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced,'' he once said. ''The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene.''