The Iceman

This 1936 painting entitled “The Iceman” done by Jacob Lawrence was completed sometime during the Harlem Renaissance. The painting is a typical portrait of and an honest reflection of daily life in 1930s Harlem, New York. It can easily represent any urban city during this time period. The artist uses the painting to show the connection, or lack thereof, between the neighborhood’s residents, as they seem to go about their daily routines without the social interaction that allied people during times of struggle.

Lawrence employs symbolism and imagery to show how the neighborhood lacked connection. On first glance of the painting, three residents are noticed, all in their own apartments, being sold ice by the iceman standing on the street, and his helper. As the apartments are all in such close proximity of one another, one would believe that the residents would be interacting with each other. But at a closer glance, it is seen that they are all minding their own business. This is strange for the era. It is well known that during the 1930s, segregation and racism were at their worst.

In the north, tensions were high between the black and white classes due to the increased number of African-Americans migrating to larger cities. In the minds of the whites, the blacks were “taking over”. In most cases, when tragic or intense situations like this occur, it is typical for people to ban together and tread through the problems as a whole community – except in this case. Whether or not these people were real Harlem residents, it is quite unlikely that this separation of community would have really happened.

Community is defined as “an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location”, with “interacting” being the keyword. The characters made up in this painting include the iceman and his helper with the pushcart, a window washer, a woman possibly ironing or cooking, a man trying to hold onto his dog, and a darkened figure in an alley. Though these people appear to be financially on the poorer side, they still go about their lives separately, and with the ease of daily routine. It would be expected that at least two of these characters would be interacting with each other, for the sake of survival.

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Surprisingly, though, none of the residents are looking at each other, and they seem not to even notice the person living next to them. It is possible that Lawrence used this imagery after witnessing a lack of connection within a community such as this one. He might have wanted to influence Harlem residents to unify during these times of segregation. Jacob Lawrence used subtle symbolism to convey the neighborhood’s physical lack of connection. It is not immediately seen, but if one were to be inside the painting at the scene, there would be tangible evidence of the lack of connection – the fire ladder.

It doesn’t seem to have any initial importance, other than being a source of escape, but in taking a closer look, it can easily be a symbol of disconnect within the community. Most fire escape ladders are constructed so that when they are necessary to be used, they can be pushed downward and the ladder will reach all the way to the ground. In this painting, the ladder does not reach the ground, making it more difficult for its users to escape. The ladder not connecting to the ground can be paralleled with the residents not connecting with one another.

Tragedy has proven time and time again to be a unifier of worlds when people seem to be at their most distant, especially for African-Americans in the 1930s, except in the case of “The Iceman”, in which the community remained separated, even though their lives overlapped. Jacob Lawrence seemed to want to bring about a wave of pride in his people by painting this and using artistic elements to influence his audience. He put forth the use of subtle symbolism and imagery to reveal a lack of connection within this Harlem neighborhood.

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