American Painter and Collagist
Summary of Romare Bearden
A prominent American artist, Romare Bearden created dazzling work celebrating the black American experience, which he integrated into greater (predominantly white) American modernism. After working several decades as a painter, during the politically tumultuous 1960s Bearden found his own voice by creating collages made of cut and torn photographs found in popular magazines that he then reassembled into visually powerful statements on African-American life. The artist's subject matter encompassed the urban milieu of Harlem, traveling trains, migrants, spiritual "conjure" women, the rural South, jazz, and blues musicians, and African-American religion and spirituality. Late in his life, the artist established The Romare Bearden Foundation to aid in the education and training of talented art students. Bearden remains revered as a highly esteemed artist of the 20th century.
- Although influenced by high modernists such as Henri Matisse, Bearden's collages also derived from African-American slave crafts such as patchwork quilts and the necessity of making artwork from whatever materials were available. This turn to quotidian materials helped break the divide between the fine and popular arts, enabling a greater number of cultures and people to participate in the creation of arts.
- Through his culling of images from mainstream pictorial magazines such as Look and Life, and black magazines such as Ebony and Jet, Bearden inserted the African-American experience, its rich visual and musical production, and its contemporary racial strife and triumphs into his collages, thus expressing his belief in the connections between art and social reality.
- Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso introduced collage into the modernist vocabulary. In it, Bearden located a methodology that allowed him to incorporate much of his life experience as an African American, from the rural South to the urban North and to Paris, into his work.
Progression of Art
Three musicians, one with a guitar in hand, dominate this scene painted in rich browns and blues; Bearden's lavish use of the color blue, in fact, suggests the blues, the singular African-American folk music. Bearden was influenced by the Social Realists of the Great Depression, along with the Mexican Muralists such as Diego Rivera, who was well-established in New York City. The Social Realists, influenced by the art and politics of Soviet Russia, took as their subjects the working class, the poor, the masses, and folk culture, rendered in legible forms and compositions, seeking to ignite progressive social change on behalf of the workers of the world and to rectify social ills. Comparable to artist Ben Shahn, who was one of the premiere Social Realists of the 1930s, and Rivera, who lavishly painted murals of his country's folk and indigenous cultures, Bearden has turned to the folk music and Southern folk culture that he knew from his youth. Bearden has flattened the pictorial space and rendered the figures with Cubist block-like forms that overlap and are compressed within the shallow space, enlarging the trio's hands to indicate their humble working origins. The brick wall behind the blues musicians serves to move them into our picture plane, so that we can more closely observe their faces and other details. Decades later, author Ralph Ellison, one of America's premier novelists would single out and praise these early works of Bearden's for their honesty and directness.
Gouache on paper - Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota
From the early to mid-1940s, Bearden alternated between social realist imagery, which he painted in a straightforward, documentary manner, and his more experimental, somewhat abstract biblical and religious subject matter, thus echoing the two strains of realism and abstraction, which competed for dominance during the mid-century. Here, factory workers gather (the factory is in the upper-right background) however, there is no evidence of their labor, nor are they seen in work clothes. These anomalies suggest that perhaps these men have either left work, or are seeking work during lean times. Fortune Magazine selected this painting to illustrate an article entitled The Negro's War.
Gouache and casein on Kraft paper - Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Minnesota
Soon after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Bearden began a series entitled The Passion of Christ (1945), inspired by the gospels of Matthew and Mark. By selecting the passion of Christ as a topic, Bearden was taking on one of the great subjects in Western art and culture, isolating the highly dramatic moment of the actual slaying of Jesus. In this important piece within the series, Bearden portrays the Crucifixion with Jesus's violently twisted and tortured body in the central position, which dramatically bisects the composition. To either side of Christ, Bearden places figures of onlookers, which he painted in washes of bright blues and purples. Sharp black calligraphic lines of India ink outline the figures as well as divide the watercolor background into prismatic planes of color, calling to mind stained glass found in churches. The brilliant colors and black outline are reminiscent of the work by French artist Georges Rouault, the subject of a retrospective at MoMA in 1945. Essayist and member of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten dubbed Bearden "The Negro Rouault." Furthermore, the Christian faith and its church remains central to African-American spiritual, communal, and political life; by turning to the Scriptures, Bearden is both returning to his origins as well as reaching out towards the greater Christian community inclusive of black America.
Watercolor, pen, India ink, and pencil on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
After a hiatus of several years in which he concentrated on composing music, Bearden re-emerged in the mid-1950s, displaying a more abstracted style of painting influenced by the Abstract Expressionists; Bearden had friendships with many of the key artists within this group. This period of Bearden's artistic development has received less attention than his Social Realism and his collages, in part because Bearden's collages are path-finding works. Comparatively, Bearden operated on the margins of Abstract Expressionism since his style remained based in figuration.
Through the 1950s, Bearden's primary medium was paint: oil, acrylic, watercolor, or gouache. Here, Bearden paints a substantial female figure that is seated alone. The painter's brushwork creates a hazy atmosphere, blending the figure and the ground into one. In order to make the female figure stand out, Bearden creates flatter planes of blue color and applied multiple black outlines to solidify the form. The blues was an African-American musical creation, and there were many prominent female blues singers, such as Billie Holiday, during the postwar era. The year 1955 also saw the deaths of blues greats such as Ruth Brown and Sara Martin. Bearden never relinquishes the figure to give over to full abstraction, which shows his attachment to narrative and relative aesthetic conservatism. It is only within the recent past that attention has been brought to these abstract canvases of Bearden. This comes as part of the larger reinvestigation of African-American art, as well as the importance of female artists such as Lee Krasner and other black artists such as Norman Lewis to Abstract Expressionism.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
With collage, Bearden had a method that allowed him to integrate his life experiences more fully into his art. Summertime has been cited as an exposé on impoverished inner city communities where many African Americans resided within tenement-like conditions. In 1963, when Bearden was in his early 50s, the artist turned his attention to the medium of collage, and also photomontage, a technique in which an image is crafted by combining cutout parts of photographs.
In this collage Bearden assembles images from newspapers and magazines, along with cut paper passages of flat color as seen in blue, pink, and brown. This work expresses a strong duality: sentimental memories of sitting on stoops and enjoying scoops of ice cream on a hot summer's day are contrasted with the heightened racial moods and tensions of 1967. While the exterior world seems pleasant enough, the inside world of furtive glances out of windows and half-covered faces imply a sense of caution and surveillance, as cities became racial battlegrounds such as the Newark, New Jersey, Riots that year which left 26 people dead.
Collage on board - St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Three Folk Musicians
In later works such as this, Bearden begins to integrate snippets of his own earlier work into his collages. As well, here he returns to folk music, or the blues, which is celebrated as a unique black contribution to American culture. The banjo, held by the musician at the right, is an African-American instrument based upon African instruments brought over during the Middle Passage. By incorporating scraps of his prior work, Bearden creates both an autobiographical as well as a historical narrative about African-American life. This collage stands in contrast to his earlier Folk Musicians (1941-42), which is more aligned with the mood of Social Realism. Whereas in the earlier canvas the musicians stare wide-eyed and directly out at the viewers, here, the trio's eyes are downturned to suggest thought and introspection.
Collage on board - Private Collection
In his collages of the late 1960s and 1970s, Bearden's colors became richer and his patterns more vibrant and decorative, introducing patterns from patchwork cloth and actual pieces of cloth into his works. In this work, Bearden demonstrates his belief that when some things are taken out of their usual context, reworked and refigured, and then inserted into a new context, they are given a new look and meaning. A patchwork quilt is one such object, rich in pattern, that is made up of rags and fragments of other materials considered secondary. Bearden creates a patchwork on composition board. The use of patterned cloth and recycling cloth has deep roots in African and Southern black history and art. Here, the vivid patterning of the cloth contrasts and highlights the reclining nude figure whose form and color draw upon black Egyptian statuary; the Africanness of Egyptian art and history was a pronounced interest during the Civil Rights era. By turning to antiquity, Bearden is incorporating ancient art relevant to modern-day African Americans, while delineating the vast contributions of Africans to world culture.
Cut-and-paste cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In this horizontally expansive work, Bearden pays tribute to Harlem, which was where he lived as a young teen as well as where he established his first studio in 1940 on 125th Street, the heart of Harlem. Bearden resided within the same building as the artist Jacob Lawrence and the novelist Claude McKay, who became tight friends with Bearden and showed a similar commitment to the arts and residents of Harlem in their art. During the 1930s, Bearden was active in the artists' organization 306 Group and the Harlem Artists Guild. Even when he relocated downtown to Canal Street on the Lower East Side, Bearden continued to socialize, organize, and exhibit in Harlem, the nation's black capital. Bearden broke the long horizontal format into six equal parts, each exploring a distinct Harlem mainstay: brick tenement apartments, an evangelical church, stoops, a barbershop, a liquor store, and a funeral parlor. The push-pull to the composition, or the variation between the interior and exterior worlds, reveal in the cutouts private moments of worship, lovemaking, and children at play, or as Bearden expressed, "the lives [the buildings] contained within their walls." This rhythm of call and response, through positive and negative space, are elements of church services and jazz improvisations. When originally exhibited, a soundtrack of city noises accompanied and activated the work.
Cut and pasted print, colored and metallic papers, Photostats, graphite, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and ink on Masoniterials - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Across the frontal plane, Bearden has cut and pasted photographs of women and of African sculpture, which he reworks into black faces. Wide-eyed, as a single unit, they peer out at the viewers. But it isn't clear if they are observers of a train moving through or cutting through their town, or if they are the travelers themselves. Bearden introduces patches of color (green, red, light blue) to break up the work's dominant blackness, bringing vibrancy and light into the composition. At the upper-left corner, a small train stands for greater themes on migration and segregation within the African-American experience. As Bearden remarked, trains "could take you away and also bring you to where you were." Furthermore, symbolic trains such as the train of the Underground Railroad were central to the history of African-American slaves, who traveled to the northern states for freedom.
Photogravure and aquatint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Piano Lesson
In this collage, Bearden's use of patterns versus flat areas of color and his explorations of interior space call to mind the art of Henri Matisse, whose interior spaces resplendent with bright color and bold pattern were attractive to the younger artist. This particular work was inspired by the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), and was originally a poster for a dance and musical collaboration between Bearden's wife Nanette and Williams. Award-winning playwright August Wilson was inspired by this work. And, when writing his own Piano Lesson (1990), for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize, he likewise set the play in Pittsburgh, Bearden's childhood and teenage hometown. Wilson also found inspiration for other plays within the collages of Bearden, especially in the four-part Pittsburgh Cycle.
Collage of various papers with paint, ink, and graphite on fiberboard - The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Biography of Romare Bearden
Romare Howard Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, into a college-educated and relatively financially successful middle-class African-American family, which was not ordinary for the time, especially in the Deep South. An only child, Bearden was born in the house of his great-grandfather. His father played the piano, and both his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather created paintings and drawings. Bearden's grandparents were property owners in Charlotte and in Pittsburgh. Despite the family's success, pervasive Southern racism set limits on their lives and livelihoods. With the installation of the Jim Crows Laws (1893, Plessey vs. Ferguson), which made racial segregation the law of the land, the Beardens and other African-American families were condemned to racial secondary social status. The Beardens relocated to the urban North along with hundreds of thousands of African Americans who likewise left the rural South behind for what they hoped would be racial equality and greater financial and educational opportunities. The Great Migration, as this mass movement of people was called, became an important subject for many African-American artists, most notably the painter Jacob Lawrence.
The Bearden family made its new home in New York City as of 1914. The artist's father, Howard, was a sanitation inspector for the New York Health Department and was a renowned storyteller as well as an accomplished pianist, which influenced Romare's lifelong love of music. Bearden's mother, Bessye, was a social and political activist, as well as the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional African-American newspaper, and also the first president of the Negro Women's Democratic Association. Uptown in Harlem, the Bearden household became a meeting place for artists, intellectuals, and political activists of the Harlem Renaissance. Among regular visitors to the home were poet Countee Cullen, musician Duke Ellington (who was also a cousin), and the actor and political activist Paul Robeson. As a teenager, Bearden spent summers with his maternal grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she ran a boarding house serving steel mill workers; many of these men were working-class African-American migrants from the South. Bearden would listen to their stories told around the kitchen table, which later found form in his collages.
In the 1920s, the Bearden family relocated from Manhattan to Pittsburgh. Upon graduating high school, Bearden was not that interested in art and instead played semiprofessional baseball in the Negro Leagues for a short time in Boston. It was as a college student that Bearden developed an interest in art, in particular cartooning, while studying at the prominent Lincoln University, the country's first Historically Black College and University (HBUC, established in 1854), located in Pennsylvania. Originally, he aspired to be a cartoonist. The young artist transferred to Boston University where he served as the director of the college humor magazine. Later, while at New York University, Bearden became more committed to his artistic studies and worked as the lead cartoonist and art editor for the school's student magazine; he graduated in 1935. Bearden went on to study mathematics at New York's Columbia University. Primarily a self-taught artist, Bearden briefly studied between 1936 and 1937 at the Arts Students League under German exile George Grosz whose pedagogical methods included the intensive study of the Old Masters. During the Weimer-era, prior to seeking asylum in the United States from the Nazis, Grosz created harsh social commentary in collage. The younger artist later commended Grosz for making him "realize the artistic possibilities of the American Negro subject matter." Bearden was particularly interested in Cubism, Futurism, Post-Impressionism, and Surrealism. While studying at the Arts Students League he exhibited early figurative paintings at the Harlem YMCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.
Concurrently, while a college student, Bearden earned his livelihood as a political cartoonist for several African-American publications including W.E.B. Du Bois's The Crisis. Bearden was a cofounder of the Harlem Artists Guild in the 1930s, which was a key social and advocacy group for black artists and was also active with the artists' collective Group 306 along with such luminaries as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. Because his family was relatively financially sound, unlike most of his contemporaries, Bearden did not qualify for the Works Progress Administration federal art patronage programs, and so he continued to work on his art while juggling several jobs. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into in the US Armed Services, where he served as an army sergeant from 1942 to 1945 in the 372nd Infantry Regiment, which was a racially segregated unit. Upon his return to America, the artist worked as a case worker for the New York City Department of Social Services. He remained in this position until 1969 when his artwork alone supported him and his wife, Nanette Rohan, a dancer who was the organizer of the New York Chamber Dance Company; the couple did not have any children.
Mature Work and Late Period
Bearden launched his career in 1940 with a solo exhibition of his paintings in Harlem, which was well received. Five years later, the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC hosted a one-man exhibition that brought great praise to the painter. These early exhibitions were waylaid by his tour of military duty. After the Army, the artist resumed painting with oils and watercolors. He turned his attention to religious subject matter, which, in part, testified to the importance of the black Church in American life. The artist exhibited his series, The Passion of Christ (1945) at the important Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York City, which also represented many Abstract Expressionists. Bearden's exhibition was a critical, as well as a financial, success. The Museum of Modern Art purchased He is Arisen (1945) from the Passion of Christ series (1945), which was the first Bearden work to enter the museum's collection, as well as the first ever museum purchase for the artist. In 1947, Bearden was one of only four African-American artists who had a solo exhibition in midtown Manhattan blue-chip galleries; Lawrence was another. By the following year, Bearden was among the most discussed American modernists and had exhibited several times at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In the 1950s, alienated from American society due the country's pervasive racism, with funds from the G.I. Bill, Bearden returned to Paris to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne for two years. He associated with and befriended such leading modernists as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Constantin Brâncuși. The artist soon became a central figure within Paris's black, expatriate community, and the Negritude movement. Bearden also formed important bonds with such key intellectuals as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
When he originally returned to New York, the artist gave up painting and devoted himself to making music. Like his friend the artist Stuart Davis, Bearden was knowledgeable and passionate about jazz and composed several jazz tunes. He co-wrote the hit song "Sea Breeze," which Dizzy Gillespie recorded. It is thought by some that Bearden might have suffered a nervous breakdown at this time. By studying and copying the works of Old Masters, as well as such modern figures as Matisse and Picasso, he worked his way back into painting and health. Still, because he did not keep up with changing styles and trends in the mid-1950s, the Kootz Gallery dropped Bearden from its stable of artists because his work was not sufficiently abstract by contemporary standards. It 1954, Bearden took a studio above the famed Apollo Theater, where he painted abstract canvases heavily influenced by Chinese painting. In the 1950s, Bearden relocated his studio to downtown New York; Harlem still remained vital to his life and to his art.
In 1962, along with Charles Alston and Norman Lewis, Bearden founded the Spiral Group, an African-American artists' collective that explored the ways artists could contribute to the ongoing Freedom Movement, which met at Bearden's Greenwich Village studio. As a group they attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963). Bearden suggested to the Spiral artists that they collaborate on a collective work by making a large-format collage. When the artists rejected this invitation, Bearden began to pursue the idea alone. In 1963, Bearden found his unique voice with his turn to collage and photomontage, in Projections, a series that encompassed both photojournalism and Pop art. The Projections consisted of scenes of Pittsburgh and Harlem but mostly Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was born. Bearden would continue with collage through the remainder of his career. Bearden often made prints and Photostats of his collages, which compromised the idea of the original, a key feature of high art and modernism.
In the late 1960s, Bearden and others formed the Cinque Gallery of New York in part to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art's infamous exhibition Harlem on My Mind (1969), which excluded black artists from contributing. Cinque solely represented African-American artists. Bearden was also a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The 1970s were a productive and positive period for the artist. With his wife, he spent a great deal of time on the Caribbean island of St. Martin where Nanette's ancestors had lived; in 1973, they built an island retreat there. At this time, Caribbean influences and images asserted themselves in his work, as he intensely studied the customs and spirituality brought over from Africa during the slave trade. Increasingly, Bearden's collages of the 1970s took on musical themes, from the urban blues of Kansas City and Harlem nightclubs, to the blues and church music of Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Bearden also began to design costumes and theatrical sets for his wife's dance troupe and for the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, bringing together the visual arts, dance, and music in one art form.
Towards the end of his life, Bearden received numerous prestigious awards including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1966, honorary doctoral degrees, and the President's National Medal of the Arts in 1987. President Jimmy Carter hosted a White House reception for the artist in 1980. Both the National Urban League and the NAACP awarded him great honors. By 1982, Bearden's health had become compromised, yet he kept working up until his death. Bearden succumbed to bone cancer in a New York hospital on March 12, 1988. His ashes were taken to his property on St. Martin, as the French West Indies had been the subject of later works.
The Legacy of Romare Bearden
Perhaps Bearden's greatest legacy is as a role model for all artists in trusting one's own vision. When Abstract Expressionism was "the" artistic movement to engage with, Bearden forged his own path and began making collages specific to his experiences as an African American man. This inclination to mine the Southern black experience and that of the urban North still influences artists who find their bearings in art of their own heritage and locale. Finally, Bearden's importance is in revising the art of collage for the American story.
Bearden's fame and artistic influence has grown exponentially since the 1980s. With the greater inclusiveness of African American art within traditional, predominantly white mainstream survey texts and college classes, Bearden is no longer isolated on the margins of art history. This greater exposure is mirrored in museum collecting practices and major exhibitions of which Bearden has had many over the past two decades. Additionally, the establishment of the Romare Bearden Foundation has helped not only to grow his name and public awareness, but also, to encourage and foster the growth of untold numbers of artists in the present day.