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A Painting to Remember: A look at Jacob Lawrence’s The Watch Maker

Collection: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.

Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn

“Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957”

At first glance The Watch Maker looks like a lost Picasso, sandwiched somewhere between1932’s Le Rêve and 1937’s Guernica, but upon further examination that notion quickly dissolves. Almost a decade after Guernica, in 1946, a 29 year old Jacob Lawrence graced Black Mountain College with his heavy symbolic painting of a blueberry black man with a loupe in his right eye and a pupil-less left eye (blind to his surroundings) as he tinkers with the gears of a watch. At the bottom of the painting, we have a gold trim brown table showing there is room for us, the viewers. The painting is very dense at first appearance. We are overwhelmed with colors that push forward – attacking our eyes. Clocks are littered randomly all over the canvas and each of them reading different times. What could Lawerence possibly be saying when we are blinded by vertical pinstripes and horizontal green walls?

Let’s deal with the obvious; why a watch maker? A watch maker symbolizes the creation of time. We submit to the construct of time the same way we submit to this painting. After you settle into the painting, you become slightly disoriented. The green wall is locked within horizontal black lines. As we trust the gravity of Lawrence’s world, we are disrupted by the catawampus table. The imbalanced table tells us how unpredictable and fragile our world really is, but the watch maker shows us that with patience and focus we will get through.

And what about the gold statue of Diana in the bottom left hand corner? Is it just a coincidence the clock creates a half crescent moon? Diana’s body is naked just as her bow is empty. At first glance it is too aggressive of a symbol compared to the others in the painting.

Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, is an archaic and obtuse symbol within the modernity of the painting . The assumption would be to recognize and deconstruct the symbolism of Diana, but Lawrence isn’t using the Roman goddess in her traditional meaning. The same way Lawerence is showing us the discipline of the watch maker, he is showing the connotation of Diana as an archer. Take into consideration the amount of practice, patience and focus an archer must have when hitting their target. All noise and chatter dissolves into the background and the target enhances. Diana’s arm runs parallel with the watch maker’s right arm. What was once a vacant bow is now equipped with the watch maker’s black arm, tool in hand, hitting his target with pen point accuracy.

Lastly, we see different shaped clocks. They all have different times, causing the viewer to feel that the times may have literal meaning, but once again Lawrence is more subversive than that. The non-temporal nature of the clocks is an emphasis on their personalities and character, as if the watch maker has spectators. Think of the clocks as people, and time as their personality. We all have different perspectives within time, but we all believe and agree in the laws of time. Either as a clock on the wall or sitting at the table with the watch maker, we celebrate the watch maker’s dedication to his craft and take pleasure in the world he is constructing. The same way we take pleasure in Lawrence’s dedication when creating the painting The Watch Maker.

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