At age 13 Lawrence moved with his family to the Harlem section of New York City. At free art classes he showed a talent for creating lively, decorative masks, a motif that would later figure strongly in his narrative painting. At the Harlem Art Workshop (sponsored by the Works Progress Administration) in 1932 he studied under Charles H. Alston.
Gouache and tempera were Lawrence’s characteristic media. His use of sombre browns and black for shadows and outlines in an otherwise vibrant palette lent his work a distinctive overtone. His best-known works are his series on historical or social themes, including …And the Migrants Kept Coming (1940), Life in Harlem (1942), and War (1947). In 1964 he visited Nigeria, where he painted scenes of local life. His later works include a powerful series on the struggles of desegregation. Lawrence taught at various schools and colleges and became a professor of art at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1971; he retired in 1986.