Romare Bearden, September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988, was a Harlem artist, author, and songwriter.
He worked with many types of media including cartoons, oils, and collages. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden grew up in New York City and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated from New York University in 1935.
He began his artistic career creating scenes of the American South. Later, he worked 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 returned to Paris in 1950 and studied art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
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. The New York Times described Bearden as “the nation’s foremost collagist” in his 1988 obituary. Bearden became a founding member of the Harlem-based art group known as Spiral, formed to discuss the responsibility of the African-American artist in the civil rights movement.
Bearden was the author or coauthor of several books. He also was a songwriter, known as co-writer of the jazz classic “Sea Breeze”, which was recorded by Billy Eckstine, a former high school classmate at Peabody High School, and Dizzy Gillespie. He had long supported young, emerging artists, and he and his wife established the Bearden Foundation to continue this work, as well as to support young scholars. In 1987, Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Early life and education
Bearden was born September 2, 1911, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bearden’s family moved with him to New York City when he was a toddler, as part of the Great Migration. After enrolling in P.S. 5 in 1917, on 141 Street and Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, Bearden attended P.S. 139, followed by DeWitt Clinton High School. In 1927 he moved to East Liberty, Pittsburgh, with his grandparents, and then returned to New York City. The Bearden household soon became a meeting place for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. His father, Howard Bearden, was a pianist. Romare’s mother, Bessye Bearden, played an active role with the New York City Board of Education and also served as founder and president of the Colored Women’s Democratic League. She was also a New York correspondent for The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Bearden had Cherokee, Italian, and African ancestry. The Washington Post described him as “African American.” Bearden’s fair skin allowed him to cross boundaries that many other Black people were restricted from.
In 1929, he graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. He enrolled in Lincoln University, the nation’s second oldest historically Black college, 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 Medley, the monthly journal of the secretive Eucleian Society at NYU. 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 Bearden supported himself by working as a political cartoonist for African-American newspapers, including the Baltimore Afro-American, where he published a weekly cartoon from 1935 until 1937.
Semi-professional baseball career
As a child, Bearden played baseball in empty lots in his neighborhood. He enjoyed sports, throwing discus for his high school track team and trying out for football. After his mother became the New York editor for the Chicago Defender, he did some writing for the paper, including some baseball stories. But once Bearden transferred from Lincoln University to Boston University, he became the starting fullback for the school football team (1931-2) and then began pitching – first for the freshman team and eventually for the school’s varsity baseball team. He was awarded a certificate of merit for his pitching at BU, which he hung with pride in subsequent homes throughout his life.
While at Boston University he played for the Boston Tigers, a semi-professional, all Black team based in the neighborhood of Roxbury. He tended to play with them during the BU baseball off-season and had opportunities to play both iconic Negro League and white baseball teams. For example, he pitched against Satchel Paige while playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords for a summer, and played exhibition games against teams such as the House of David and the Kansas City Monarchs. When Philadelphia Athletics catcher, Mickey Cochrane, brought a number of teammates to play a game against BU, Bearden gave up only one hit—impressing Athletics owner Connie Mack. Mack offered Bearden a place on the Athletics fifteen years before Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in major league baseball. Sources conflict about whether Mack thought Bearden was white or told Bearden he would have to pass for white. Despite the Athletics World Series in 1929 and 1930, and the American League pennant in 1931, Bearden decided he did not want to hide his identity and chose not to play for the Athletics. After two summers with the Boston Tigers, an injury made Bearden rethink the attention he was giving to baseball and he put greater focus into his art, instead.
Career as an artist
Bearden grew as an artist by exploring 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 Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. In 1935, Bearden became a case worker for the Harlem office of the New York City Department of Social Services. Throughout his career as an artist, Bearden worked as a case worker off and on to supplement his income. During World War II, Bearden joined the United States Army, serving from 1942 until 1945, largely in Europe.
After serving in the army, Bearden joined the Samuel Kootz Gallery, a commercial gallery in New York that featured avant-garde art. He produced paintings at this time in “an expressionistic, linear, semi-abstract style.” He returned to Europe in 1950 to study philosophy with Gaston Bachelard and art history at the Sorbonne, under the auspices of the G.I. Bill. Bearden traveled throughout Europe, visiting Picasso and other artists.
Making major changes in his art, he started producing abstract representations of what he deemed as human, specifically scenes from the Passion of Jesus. 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 it was deemed not abstract enough.
During Bearden’s success in the gallery, however, he produced Golgotha, a painting from his series of the Passion of Jesus (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 are still too realistic to be concretely abstract; this work has a feel of early Cubism. The body is in a central position and darkly contrasted 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 wanted to explore 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, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the greatest expressions of man’s humanism, because of the idea of him that lived on through other men. It 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.
Bearden was 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 his times, during which other noted artists created abstract representations of historically significant events, such as Robert Motherwell’s commemoration of the Spanish Civil War, Jackson Pollock’s investigation of Northwest Coast Indian art, Mark Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s interpretations of Biblical stories, etc. Bearden depicted humanity through abstract expressionism after feeling he did not see it during the war. Bearden’s work was less abstract than these other artists, and Sam Kootz’s gallery ended its representation of him.
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 the late 1950s, Bearden’s work became more abstract. He used 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 which he used in painting. He also spent much 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 he and his wife established a second home on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. In 1961, Bearden joined the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery in New York City, which would represent him for the rest of his career.
In the early 1960s in Harlem, Bearden was a founding member of the art group known as Spiral, formed “to discuss 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, James Yeargans, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew, and William Pritchard. Woodruff was responsible for naming the group Spiral, suggesting how the Archimedean 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.
Bearden’s collage work began in 1963 or 1964. He first combined images cut from magazines and colored paper, which he would often further alter with the use of sandpaper, bleach, graphite or paint. Bearden enlarged these collages through the photostat process. Building on the momentum from a successful exhibition of his photostat pieces at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery in 1964, Bearden was invited to do a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This heightened his public profile. Bearden’s collage techniques changed over the years, and in later pieces he would use blown-up photostat photographic images, silk-screens, colored paper, and billboard pieces to create large collages on canvas and fiberboard.
In 1971, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective exhibition of Bearden’s work, which traveled to the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. The City of Berkeley then commissioned Bearden to create a mural for the City Council chambers. The sixteen-foot-wide mural, incorporating many visual aspects of the city in collage style, was installed in late 1973 and received positive reviews. It was taken down and loaned to a National Gallery of Art Bearden retrospective in 2003 that traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Following that tour it has been in storage while the City Hall building has awaited a seismic retrofit and the city council has been meeting elsewhere. A portion of the mural inspired the city’s current logo.
During the 1970s, he participated in a community art space called Communications Village operated by printmaker Benjamin Leroy Wigfall in Kingston, NY. Andrews made prints with the help of printer assistants who had been taught printmaking by Wigfall, and he exhibited there.
Personal life and death
In 1954, at age 42, Bearden married Nanette Rohan, a 27-year-old dancer from Staten Island, New York. She later became an artist and critic. The couple eventually created the Bearden Foundation to assist young artists.
Bearden died in New York City on March 12, 1988, due to complications from bone cancer. The New York Times described Bearden in its obituary as “one of America’s pre-eminent artists” and “the nation’s foremost collagist.”
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. Bearden’s vernacular realism represented in the work makes The Visitation noteworthy; he describes two figures in The Visitation somewhat realistically but does not fully follow pure realism, and distorts and exaggerates some parts of their bodies to “convey an experiential feeling or subjective disposition.” Bearden said, “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.”
In 1942, Bearden produced Factory Workers (gouache on casein on brown kraft paper mounted on board), which was commissioned by Forbes magazine to accompany an article titled The Negro’s War. The article “examined the social and financial costs of racial discrimination during wartime and advocated for full integration of the American workplace.” Factory Workers and its companion piece Folk Musicians serve as prime examples of the influence that Mexican muralists played in Bearden’s early work.
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 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 expressed representational and more overtly socially conscious aspects in his work. 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 African-American rights were moving forward, and 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 are generally considered to be his best work.
Bearden had numerous museum shows of his work since then, including a 1971 show at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Prevalence of Ritual, an exhibition of his 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, concentrates 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 approach to be a burden on African artists, because he saw the idea as creating an emphasis on reproduction of 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. He wanted to express how African Americans’ rights were always changing, and society itself was in a temporal flux at the time. Bearden wanted to show that nothing is fixed, and expressed this idea throughout the image: not only is the subject about to have water poured from the top, but the subject is also 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.”
In 2008 a 1984 mural by Romare Bearden in the Gateway Center subway station in Pittsburgh was estimated as worth $15 million, more than the cash-strapped transit agency expected. It raised 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-by-13-foot (18.3 by 4.0 m) 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 held by the Art Institute of Chicago, exemplifies Bearden’s effort to represent African-American rights in the form of collage. This collage describes one of the scenes in Homer’s epic Odyssey, in which the hero Odysseus is returning home from his long journey. The viewer’s eye is first captured by the main figure, Odysseus, situated at the center of the work and reaching his hand to his wife. All the figures are black, enlarging the context of the Greek legend. This is one of how Bearden works to represent African-American rights; by replacing white characters with blacks, he attempts to defeat the rigidity of historical roles and stereotypes and open up the possibilities and potential of blacks. “Bearden may have seen Odysseus as a strong mental model for the African-American community, which had endured its own adversities and setbacks.” By portraying Odysseus as black, Bearden maximizes the potential for empathy by black audiences.
Bearden said that he used collage 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, he said that collage’s technique of gathering several pieces together to create one assembled work “symbolizes the coming together of tradition and communities.”
In addition to painting, collage, and athletics, Bearden enjoyed music and even composed a number of songs.
In 1960, Loften Mitchell released the three-act play, Star of the Morning, for which he wrote the script and music, and Bearden and Clyde Fox wrote the lyrics.
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, a street was named after Bearden, intersecting West Boulevard, on the west side of the city. Romare Bearden Drive is lined by the West Boulevard Public Library and rows of townhouses.
Inside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Main Library (310 N. Tryon Street) is Bearden’s mosaic, Before Dawn. After Bearden’s death, his widow selected a 12-by-18-inch (300 mm × 460 mm) collage by him to be recreated in smalti (glass tiles) by Crovatto Mosaics in Spilimbergo, Italy, for the grand reopening gala (June 18, 1989) of the “new” library. She was publicly honored at the ceremony for her contribution. The reinterpreted work is 9 feet (2.7 m) tall and 13.5 feet (4.1 m) wide.
Groundbreaking for Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte took place on September 2, 2011, and the completed park opened in late August 2013. It is situated on a 5.2-acre (2.1 ha) parcel located in Third Ward between Church and Mint streets. The artist lived near the new park for a time as a child, at the corner of what is now MLK Boulevard and Graham Street. The park design is based on the work of public artist Norie Sato. Her concepts were inspired by Bearden’s multimedia collages. Fittingly, the park serves as an entryway to a minor league baseball stadium, BB&T Charlotte Knights Ballpark.
Bearden’s home in Harlem, New York is a Historic Landmark Preservation site.
DC Moore Gallery currently represents the estate of Romare Bearden. The first exhibition of his works at the gallery was in September 2008. In 2014-15, Columbia University hosted a major Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition of Bearden’s work and an accompanying series of lectures, readings, performances, and other events celebrating the artist. On display at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery on Columbia’s Morningside campus, and also at Columbia’s Global Centers in Paris and Istanbul, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey focused on the cycle of collages and watercolors Bearden completed in 1977 based on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.
For a 2005 U.S. postal stamp sheet commemorating ten important milestones of the Civil Rights Movement, Beardon’s 1984 lithograph “The Lamp” was selected to illustrate the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service released a set of Forever stamps featuring four of Bearden’s paintings during a first-day-of-issuance ceremony at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond announced the acquisition of Romare Bearden’s collage, Three Folk Musicians, as part of the museum’s permanent collection. The collage, which shows two guitar players and a banjo player, is often cited in art history books. It was shown at the VMFA for the first time in February 2017 in the museum’s mid- to late 20th-century galleries.
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Photo credit: 1) Romare Beardon. 2) Patchwork Quilt, cut-and-pasted cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 1970, Museum of Modern Art. 3) The Black American in Search of His Identity (1969) at the National Gallery of Art‘s showing of Afro-Atlantic Histories in Washington, DC in 2022. 4) ROMARE BEARDEN: A BLACK ODYSSEY | Wallach Art Gallery Visit with Robert O’Meally and Diedra Harris-Kelley | March 12, 2015.
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