A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call

Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board, 61 x 50.8 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) Speakers: Jennifer Padgett, assistant curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Beth Harris


Additional resources:

This painting at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Anna Diamond, “Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century After His Birth,” September 5, 2017) Smithsonian.com

Jacob Lawrence (from the Whitney Museum of American Art)

[0:00] [music]

Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the galleries of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting by Jacob Lawrence called “Ambulance Call.” It dates to 1948. Here we are, as we often are, with Jacob Lawrence on the streets of Harlem.

Jennifer Padgett: [0:20] Lawrence has depicted a medical emergency. We have two ambulance attendants dressed in blue, hauling a patient on a stretcher. To the side, we see a paramedic with a stethoscope peeking out of his pocket.

Beth: [0:33] This may be a street scene in Harlem, but we don’t see the city or the street itself. We just see this community gathering together around the figure on the stretcher.

Jennifer: [0:42] The figures are close together and you get a patterning of their vibrant clothing. It emphasizes that sense of community.

Beth: [0:50] The figures, like in so much of Lawrence’s work, are rendered in a very abstract way. Bodies form these geometric shapes and yet they’re still so expressive. When I look, for example, at the figure in red with the pearls and that wonderful belt, the way that she pulls her right arm across her body, her head sinks down below her shoulders, we have a real sense of grief.

Jennifer: [1:12] You also get people from different backgrounds. We see, in the upper right, a gentleman wearing overalls.

Beth: [1:17] Lawrence does draw our attention to little moments. We have the figure on the right who’s got a cigarette in his hand and is stepping forward. The figure in front of him who’s a little bit shorter, wearing that wonderful straw hat.

[1:30] Some people are wearing top hats, some wearing berets, some wearing baseball caps. All the faces are turned down toward this figure and yet he looks up with his mouth open, and it’s incredibly poignant.

Jennifer: [1:43] The downcast faces of the figures and their somber expressions indicate that this is a very dire situation.

Beth: [1:50] Harlem in the 1940s. This is the tail end of Harlem Renaissance, its incredible flowering of the arts beginning in the 1920s lasting to the 1940s. Also the period of the Great Migration where huge numbers of African Americans migrated from the South to Harlem.

[2:09] Harlem became the center of African American culture, and there’s this vitality in the streets of Harlem that Lawrence captures so well.

Jennifer: [2:17] This is a wonderful opportunity to think about African Americans in the medical field.

Beth: [2:22] Harlem Hospital was the neighborhood hospital.

Jennifer: [2:25] The hospital had been built in 1887. Over time, as an increasing number of African Americans moved to the neighborhood, the need for greater capacity continued to increase, but due to systemic racism, the medical care that was necessary for the community always lagged behind.

Beth: [2:42] It’s important to remember that this is a period of intense discrimination in New York City.

[2:49] We often think about the problems in the Jim Crow South during this period before the Civil Rights Movement, but discrimination was rampant in New York City. People of color got second-rate medical care. There were very few Black doctors, and Harlem Hospital didn’t get its first Black doctor until 1919.

Jennifer: [3:06] You get a sense of that advancement of African Americans in the medical field in thinking about the fact that the attendants here and the paramedics are African American.

Beth: [3:16] It’s an incredibly moving painting, and I just wanted to read this quote from Lawrence himself about Harlem.

[3:22] He said, “It was a very cohesive community. You knew people. You didn’t know their names but you passed people on the street and see the faces over and over again. It was that kind of community. You knew the police. You knew the firemen. You knew the teachers, the people on the street. You knew the peddlers. That’s what it was for me.”

[3:41] You do get that sense of people who know one another, if not intimately, they’re familiar with one another, here in this painting. One little sense I do get of the street scene is the cat at the top with some prey in its mouth, as though we’re both looking down at the ambulance scene but maybe up at a rooftop.

[4:00] I wonder if Lawrence meant it as a comment on the sick figure, that the cat has come for its prey, the way that perhaps death has come for the figure on the stretcher.

Jennifer: [4:11] You have this dramatic human experience playing out in the center. Then the sense that life continues on and there’s a whole other cycle of life and death that carries on in the background.

[4:22] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jennifer Padgett, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call," in Smarthistory, October 3, 2018, accessed July 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-harlem-street-scene-by-jacob-lawrence-ambulance-call-2/.