Museum Meanderings XII: E-Museum Jacob Lawrence Paintings and Rehabilitation Medicine : American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

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Museum Meanderings XII

E-Museum Jacob Lawrence Paintings and Rehabilitation Medicine

Altschuler, Eric L. MD, PhD; Altschuler, Daniel L.; Morgan, Crystal N. BA

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American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation 102(2):p 166-168, February 2023. | DOI: 10.1097/PHM.0000000000002133
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In the April 1930 issue, Founding Editor-in-Chief William Rush Dunton, Jr, MD (1868–1966), initiated a new series in the journal (then known as Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation)—Museum Meanderings.1 The series ran intermittently through December 1931, eventually totaling 11 installments. The series was never officially closed or ended,2 and here, the 12th installment—an e-museum “tour” of paintings by the great American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) relevant to rehabilitation medicine—is presented.

Rush Dunton began Museum Meanderings I (MM I) by discussing the five types of museums to be visited and described: a—art museums, b—natural history museums, and c, d, e—museums with historical, archaeologic, and ethnologic collections. Large and famous museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York City (MM I), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (MM VIII), and the Art Institute of Chicago (MM XI) are covered. Smaller collections such as the Doylestown Museum, now the Mercer Museum (Doylestown, PA), containing American colonial era and ancient tools and artifacts are also described (MM I). The articles are essentially travel guides to the museums, including days museums are open, cost of admission, directions to exhibits—such as turn right at the entrance for this display, left for another display—and even suggestions of places to dine and buy antiques when visiting the museums.

Aside from a bit of a focus on textiles, pottery, and other crafts (e.g., MM III-V), there is not particular relevance of the museum wanderings to the practice of occupational therapy or rehabilitation medicine. However, a number of features in the series set or upheld principles of the journal that remain true today: (1) Rush Dunton wrote five of the installments, but the authors named for the other installments are all women, something unusual, if not unprecedented, in a medical journal for the time. (2) Installment IX is devoted to museums in Montreal,3 consistent with the journal’s international scope from its founding to this day.4 (3) An Editorial Note5 immediately preceding MM III mentions that the authors are occupational therapy aide students at Walter Reed General Hospital. This presages the current journal practice of mentioning when article authors are in training. (The unnamed authors of MM IV and MM V are noted to be student aides at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.)

Although the internet makes travel guides for the most part obsolete, it does offer the opportunity to “tour” paintings that would never be brought together physically in one museum.

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, NJ, and moved to New York City where he received training in art and obtained a paid position through the Great Depression era Works Progress Administration. In addition to individual paintings, Lawrence painted series of paintings: the lives of Harriet Tubman (1938–1939) and Frederick Douglass (1939–1940). In 1940–1941, Lawrence completed his best-known series the 60-panel set of narrative paintings Migration of the Negro or And the Migrants Kept Coming, now known as the Migration Series. The series portrays the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North after World War I. Odd-numbered paintings are currently held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and even-numbered paintings, in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

Because of depression, in 1949, Lawrence checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens, staying for 11 mos. During the stay, Lawrence pained three works of particular relevance to physical medicine and rehabilitation: Occupational Therapy (1949) (later known Occupational Therapy No. 1) (Fig. 1), Creative Therapy (1949) (Fig. 2), and Recreational Therapy (1949) (now lost). In 1950, he painted Occupational Therapy No. 2 (Fig. 3).

Occupational Therapy (No. 1) (1949, private collection) tempera on paper. Copyright 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo copyright Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.
Creative Therapy (1949) casein over graphite; sheet. 56 × 76.4 cm (22 1/16 × 30 1/16 in). © Copyright 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Delia E. Holden Fund 1994.2.
Occupational Therapy No. 2 (1950) gouache. Copyright 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Dr and Mrs Milton Lurie Kramer, Class of 1936, Collection; Bequest of Helen Kroll Kramer, 72.110.013. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Image courtesy of the Johnson Museum.

Occupational Therapy No. 1 (Fig. 1) is one of Lawrence’s masterpieces. The painting shows five women performing different sewing tasks. The painting has been discussed,6,7 but it has not been appreciated that the women all appear to be the same person, with the painting then showing stages or the cycle of rehabilitation. Lawrence’s division of space is also outstanding.

Interestingly, upon inspecting a high-resolution image of Occupational Therapy No. 2 (Fig. 3), the nine individuals depicted appear to be representations of not more than four, and possibly only three or two, different people. One of these may be the same individual painted in Occupational Therapy No. 1. Similarly, Lawrence painted himself into Creative Therapy (Fig. 2). The rectilinear geometric shapes and images in light and dark wood tones and colored in shapes, and also the use of the curvilinear strings in Occupational Therapy No. 2 (Fig. 3), are masterfully done and a near endless source of fascination to us.

Lawrence’s paintings are thought provoking and inspirational. Occupational therapists as part of physical medicine and rehabilitation departments treat patients in psychiatric units today, as they did when Lawrence painted his paintings. The paintings also harken back to earlier days of the journal, still known in 1949 as Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation.4 Work was a common theme in Lawrence’s paintings. William Rush Dunton, Jr, MD, originally trained as a psychiatrist. A decade before founding this journal, he published an article8 on the benefit of occupation as a therapy modality for psychiatric patients. Fascinatingly, Rush Dunton’s second cousin twice removed, famed American Revolutionary War physician, and signer of the American Declaration of Independence Dr Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) noted the same benefit of occupation for psychiatric patients.9

In MM I, Rush Dunton noted that art museums were perhaps the most important and inspiring.1 Lawrence’s paintings certainly are so. Rush Dunton1 also “hoped that therapists and students in various localities will study their local museums…and pass on the stimulus which they obtain.” Similarly, physiatrists, therapists, and their students are now invited to contribute future installments of Museum Meanderings, which may come not from art museums but from visitations to natural history museums somewhere in the world with exhibits or specimen descriptions of which can contribute insights into the practice of, education, or research in physical medicine and rehabilitation.


1. Dunton WR Jr.: Museum meanderings I. Introduction. Occup Ther Rehabil 1930;9:103–16
2. Dunton WR Jr.: Museum meanderings XI. The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. Occup Ther Rehabil 1931;10:393–6
3. Boyd M: Museum meanderings IX. Museums of Montreal. Occup Ther Rehabil 1931;10:47
4. Altschuler EL, Altschuler DL: From the birth of occupational therapy and physical medicine and rehabilitation to randomized controlled trials: the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: a centennial review. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2022;101:569–74
5. Galt MB, Rauch MK: Museum meanderings III. Weaving and textiles in Washington, D.C. Occup Ther Rehabil 1930;9:141–8
6. Nesbett PT: Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935–1999): A Catalogue Raisonné. Seattle, WA, University of Washington Press, 2000:113–4
7. Lawrence J: New paintings portraying life in an insane asylum project him into top ranks of US artists. Ebony 1951;7:73–9
8. Dunton WR Jr.: Occupation as a therapeutic measure. Med Rec 1913;83:388–9
9. Rush B: Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind. Philadelphia, PA, Kimber and Richardson, 1812:226. Available at: Accessed August 7, 2022

Jacob Lawrence: Rehabilitation Medicine; Art History; Museum

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