Romare Bearden (September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988) was an American artist and writer who depicted African-American life. He has worked with many types of media including cartoons, oils and collages. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden moved to New York City at a very young age and went on to graduate from NYU in 1935. He began his artistic career creating scenes of the American South. Later, he endeavored to express the humanity he felt was lacking in the world after his experience in the US Army during World War II on the European front. He later returned to Paris in 1950 and studied Art History and Philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1950.
Bearden’s early work focused on unity and cooperation within the African-American community. After a period during the 1950s when he painted more abstractly, this theme reemerged in his collage works of the 1960s, when Bearden became a founding member of the Harlem-based art group known as The Spiral, formed to discuss the responsibility of the African-American artist in the struggle for civil rights.
Bearden was the author or coauthor of several books, and was a songwriter who co-wrote the jazz classic “Sea Breeze”, which was recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. His lifelong support of young, emerging artists led him and his wife to create the Bearden Foundation to support young or emerging artists and scholars. In 1987, Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts. His work in collage led the New York Times to describe Bearden as “the nation’s foremost collagist” in his 1988 obituary.
Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. His family moved him to New York City as a toddler, and their household soon became a meeting place for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. His mother, Bessye Bearden, played an active role with New York City’s Board of Education, and also served as founder and president of the Colored Women’s Democratic League. Young Romare Bearden traveled frequently, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to visit family members in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In 1929 he graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Lincoln University, the nation’s first Historically Black College and University founded in 1854. He later transferred to Boston University where he served as art director for Beanpot, Boston University’s student humor magazine. Bearden continued his studies at New York University (NYU), where he started to focus more on his art and less on athletics, and became a lead cartoonist and art editor for the Eucleian Society’s (a secretive student society at NYU) monthly journal, The Medley. Bearden studied art, education, science and mathematics, graduating with a degree in science and education in 1935. He continued his artistic study under German artist George Grosz at the Art Students League in 1936 and 1937. During this period he supported himself as a political cartoonist for African-American newspapers.
Career as an artist
Bearden grew as an artist not by learning how to create new techniques and mediums, but by his life experiences. His early paintings were often of scenes in the American South, and his style was strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists, especially Diego Riveraand José Clemente Orozco. Shortly thereafter he began the first of his stints as a case worker for the New York Department of Social Services. During World War II, Bearden joined the United States Army, serving from 1942 until 1945. He would return to Europe in 1950 to study philosophy at the Sorbonne under the auspices of the GI Bill.
This completely changed his style of art as he started producing abstract representations of what he deemed as human; specifically scenes from the Passion of the Christ. He had evolved from what Edward Alden Jewell, a reviewer for the New York Times, called a “debilitating focus on Regionalist and ethnic concerns” to what became known as his stylistic approach which participated in the post-war aims of avant-garde American art. His works were exhibited at the Samuel M. Kootz gallery until his work was deemed not abstract enough.
During his success in the gallery, however, he produced Golgotha, a painting from his series of the Passion of the Christ (see Figure 1). Golgotha is an abstract representation of the Crucifixion. The eye of the viewer is drawn to the middle of the image first, where Bearden has rendered Christ’s body. The body parts are stylized into abstract geometric shapes, yet still too realistic to be concretely abstract; this work has a feel of early Cubism. The body is in a central position and yet darkly contrasting with the highlighted crowds. The crowds of people are on the left and right, and are encapsulated within large spheres of bright colors of purple and indigo. The
background of the painting is depicted in lighter jewel tones dissected with linear black ink. Bearden used these colors and contrasts because of the abstract influence of the time, but also for their meanings.
Bearden intended to not focus on Christ but he wanted to emulate rather the emotions and actions of the crowds gathered around the Crucifixion. He worked hard to “depict myths in an attempt to convey universal human values and reactions”. According to Bearden himself, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the greatest expressions of man’s humanism, not because of Christ’s actual existence but the idea of him that lived on through other men. This is why Bearden focuses on Christ’s body first, to portray the idea of the myth, and then highlights the crowd, to show how the idea is passed on to men.
While it may seem as if Bearden was emphasizing the Biblical interpretations of Christ and the Crucifixion, he was actually focusing on the spiritual intent. He wanted to show ideas of humanism and thought that cannot be seen by the eye, but “must be digested by the mind”. This is in accordance with the time he produced this image, as other famous artists creating avant-garde abstract representations of historically significant events, such as Robert Motherwell’s commemoration of the Spanish Civil War, Jackson Pollock’s investigation of the Northwest Coast Indian art, Mark Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s interpretations of Biblical stories, etc. Bearden used this form of art to depict humanity during a period of time when he didn’t see humanity in existence through the war. However, Bearden stands out from these other artists as his works, including Golgotha, are a little too realistic for this time, and he was kicked out of Sam Kootz’s gallery.
Bearden turned to music, co-writing the hit song Sea Breeze, which was recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie; it is still considered a jazz classic. In 1954, at age 42, he married Nanette Bearden, a 27-year old dancer who herself became an artist and critic. The couple eventually created the Bearden Foundation to assist young artists.
In the late 1950s, Bearden’s work became more abstract, using layers of oil paint to produce muted, hidden effects. In 1956, Bearden began studying with a Chinese calligrapher, whom he credits with introducing him to new ideas about space and composition in painting. He also spent a lot of time studying famous European paintings he admired, particularly the work of the Dutch artists Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, and Rembrandt. He began exhibiting again in 1960. About this time the couple established a second home in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
In the early 1960s in Harlem, Bearden was a founding member of the art group known as The Spiral formed “for the purpose of discussing the commitment of the Negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties, and as a discussion group to consider common aesthetic problems.” The first meeting was held in Bearden’s studio on July 5, 1963 and was attended by Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and James Yeargans, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew, and William Pritchard. Woodruff was responsible for naming the group The Spiral suggesting the way in which the Archimedes spiral ascends upward as a symbol of progress. Over time the group expanded to include Merton Simpson, Emma Amos, Reginald Gammon Alvin Hollingsworth, Calvin Douglas, Perry Ferguson, William Majors and Earle Miller. Stylistically the group ranged from Abstract Expressionists to social protest painters.
His early works suggest the importance of African Americans’ unity and cooperation. For instance, The Visitation implies the importance of collaboration of black communities by depicting intimacy between two black women who are holding hands together. However, not only because of the message conveyed, but also Bearden’s vernacular realism represented in the work makes The Visitation noteworthy; Bearden describes two figures in The Visitation somewhat realistically but does not fully follow the pure realism by distorting and exaggerating some parts of their body, to “convey an experiential feeling or subjective disposition.” Bearden’s quotation also demonstrates his supportive view to vernacular realism: “the Negro artists […] must not be content with merely recording a scene as a machine. He must enter wholeheartedly into the situation he wishes to convey.”
Bearden had struggled with two artistic sides of himself: his background as “a student of literature and of artistic traditions, and being a black human being involves very real experiences, figurative and concrete”, which was at combat with the mid-twentieth century “exploration of abstraction”. His frustration with abstraction won over, as he himself described his paintings’ focus as coming to a plateau. Bearden then turned to a completely different medium at a very important time for the country.
During the 1960s civil rights movement, Bearden started to experiment again, this time with forms of collage. After helping to found an artists group in support of civil rights, Bearden’s work became more representational and more overtly socially conscious. He used clippings from magazines, which in and of itself was a new medium as glossy magazines were fairly new. He used these glossy scraps to incorporate modernity in his works, trying to show how not only were African-American rights moving forward, but so was his socially conscious art. In 1964, he held an exhibition he called Projections, where he introduced his new collage style. These works were very well received, and these are generally considered to be his best work.
There have been numerous museum shows of Bearden’s work since then, including a 1971 show at the Museum of Modern Artentitled Prevalence of Ritual, an exhibition of his highly prized prints entitled A Graphic Odyssey showing the work of the last fifteen years of his life, and the 2005 National Gallery of Art retrospective entitled The Art of Romare Bearden. In 2011, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery exhibited its second show of the artist’s work, Romare Bearden (1911–1988): Collage, A Centennial Celebration, an intimate grouping of 21 collages produced between 1964 and 1983.
One of his most famous series, Prevalence of Ritual, concentrated mostly on southern African-American life. He used these collages to show his rejection of the Harmon Foundation’s (a New York City arts organization) emphasis on the idea that African Americans must reproduce their culture in their art. Bearden found this to be a burden on African artists, because he saw this idea creating an emphasis on reproducing something that already exists in the world. He used this new series to speak out against this limitation on Black artists, and to emphasize modern art.
In this series, one of the pieces is entitled Baptism. Bearden was influenced by Francisco de Zurbarán, and based Baptism on Zurbarán’s painting The Virgin Protectress of the Carthusians. Bearden wanted to show how the water that is about to be poured on the subject being baptized is always moving, giving the whole collage a feel and sense of temporal flux. This is a direct connection with the fact that African Americans’ rights were always changing, and society itself was in a temporal flux at the time he created this image. Bearden wanted to show how nothing is fixed, and represented this idea throughout the image: not only is the subject being baptized about to have water poured from the top, but the subject is also about to be submerged in water. Every aspect of the collage is moving and will never be the same more than once, which was congruent with society at the time.
In “The Art of Romare Bearden”, Ruth Fine describes his themes as “universal”. “A well-read man whose friends were other artists, writers, poets and jazz musicians, Bearden mined their worlds as well as his own for topics to explore. He took his imagery from both the everyday rituals of African American rural life in the south and urban life in the north, melding those American experiences with his personal experiences and with the themes of classical literature, religion, myth, music and daily human ritual.”
A mural by Romare Bearden in the Gateway Center subway station in Pittsburgh is worth $15 million, more than the cash-strapped transit agency expected, raising questions about how it should be cared for once it is removed before the station is demolished. “We did not expect it to be that much,” Port Authority of Allegheny County spokeswoman Judi McNeil said. “We don’t have the wherewithal to be a caretaker of such a valuable piece.” It would cost the agency more than $100,000 a year to insure the 60-foot-by-13-foot tile mural, McNeil said. Bearden was paid $90,000 for the project, titled “Pittsburgh Recollections.” It was installed in 1984.
Before his death, Bearden claimed the collage fragments aided him in ushering the past into the present: “When I conjure these memories, they are of the present to me, because after all, the artist is a kind of enchanter in time.”
The Return of Odysseus, one of his collage works in the Art Institute of Chicago, exemplifies Bearden’s effort to actively represent African-American rights in a form of collage. This collage describes one of the scenes in Homer’s novel Odyssey, in which the Odysseus is returning home from his long journey. When one first sees the collage, the focal point that first captures one’s eyes is the main figure, Odysseus, situated at the middle of the work reaching his hand to his wife. However, if one takes a closer look at Odysseus, he or she would wonder why Odysseus and his wife, as well as all the other figures in the collage, are depicted as blacks, since according to the original story, Odysseus is a Greek king. This is one of the ways how Bearden actively involves in his collage works to represent African-American rights; by replacing wh
ite characters into blacks, he attempts to defeat the rigidness of racial roles and stereotypes and open up the possibilities and potentials of blacks. In addition, the original novel depicts Odysseus as a strong character who has overcome numerous difficulties, and thus “Bearden may have seen Odysseus as a strong mental model for the African-American community, which had endured its own adversities and setbacks.” Therefore, by describing Odysseus as black, Bearden maximizes the effect of potential black audiences empathizing to Odysseus.
One may wonder why Bearden chose the technique of collage to support the Civil Rights Movement and assert African-American rights. The reason he used this technique was because “he felt that art portraying the lives of African Americans did not give full value to the individual. […] In doing so he was able to combine abstract art with real images so that people of different cultures could grasp the subject matter of the African American culture: The people. This is why his theme always exemplified people of color.” In addition, collage’s technique of gathering several pieces together to create one assembled work “symbolizes the coming together of tradition and communities.”
Romare Bearden died in New York City on March 12, 1988 due to complications from bone cancer. In their obituary for him, the New York Times called Bearden “one of America’s pre-eminent artists” and “the nation’s foremost collagist.”
Two years after his death, The Romare Bearden Foundation was founded. This non-profit organization not only serves as Bearden’s official Estate, but also helps “to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of this preeminent American artist.” Recently, it has begun developing grant-giving programs aimed at funding and supporting children, young (emerging) artists and scholars.
In Charlotte, Romare Bearden has a street named after him, intersecting West Boulevard, on the west side of the city. On that site, Romare Bearden Drive is surrounded by the West Boulevard Public Library branch and rows of townhouses.
Also in Charlotte at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Main Library (310 N. Tryon Street), just inside the doors is one of the strongest mosaic treasures in the region – “Before Dawn”. After Bearden’s death, his widow selected a 12″ x 18″ collage to be recreated in smalti (glass tiles) by Crovatto Mosaics in Spilimbergo, Italy, for the Grand Reopening Gala (18 June 1989) of the ‘new’ library. She was publ
icly honored at the ceremony for her contribution and graciously received much adulation from an appreciative city. The masterpiece is 9 feet tall and 13.5 feet wide.
Ground breaking for Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte, took place at 9 am on September 2, 2011 and the completed parkopened in late August 2013. It is situated on a 5.2-acre parcel located in Third Ward between Church and Mint Streets and Martin Luther King Boulevard and 4th Street. At one point in his childhood, the artist lived near the new park at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Graham Street. The park design is based on work of public artist Norie Sato. Her concepts were inspired by Bearden’s multimedia collages where he used memory, experience and tradition as the basis of his work.
DC Moore Gallery currently represents the Estate of Romare Bearden. The first exhibition of his works at the gallery was in September 2008.