Romare Bearden was born on September 2, 1911 to (Richard) Howard and Bessye Bearden in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1914, they moved north to Harlem, New York, joining millions of other African Americans in the Great Migration, looking for greater racial equality and more financial and educational opportunities. They lived there as the Harlem Renaissance ushered in a rebirth of African American culture and the arts.
Howard was a city sanitation inspector. He was also known to be quite the story teller and was a talented pianist. Bessye became a social and political activist and became the NY correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a regional African-American newspaper. She also became the first president of the Negro Women’s Democratic Association.
Music and Stories
The Beardens were a well-educated family and friends with some of the most prominent figures in Harlem at that time. They knew poet and writer Countee Cullen and musician Duke Ellington. They were also friends with actor, activist, and athlete Paul Robeson, founder-president of the National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune, and the first African-American surgical intern at Harlem Hospital Dr. Aubré de Lambert Maynard. This gave young Romare exposure to some of the creative and intellectual minds of his time.
Romare spent his summers with his grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She ran a boarding house for steel mill workers, many of whom were African American migrants from the South. The stories he heard them tell later became themes in some of his collages.
In the 1920s, the Beardens moved to Pittsburgh. When Romare graduated high school there, art wasn’t his passion yet. Instead he went to college for science and math. While in college, he played semi-pro baseball for the Boston Tigers in the Negro Leagues.
Romare’s higher education began at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he studied science and math. His interest in art sparked when he discovered cartooning while attending Lincoln and soon aspired to be a cartoonist.
After a year he transferred to Boston University, where he was the director of the college humor magazine. While in Boston he took courses with artist George Grosz at the Arts Students League. Grosz was an asylum-seeker from Germany, whose art sharply criticized what he saw the decline of German society. Although he turned to painting more traditional themes in the United States, his influence helped Romare explore his own ways of depicting his experience as an African American through his art.
Under Grosz’s tutelage Romare studied the Old Masters and explored Cubism, Futurism, Post-Impressionism, and Surrealism. During this time he also exhibited some of his early work at the Harlem YMCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.
A couple of years later, Romare transferred to New York University where he began to focus more on art. He became the lead cartoonist and editor for the student magazine and graduated in 1935. He continued to study under George Grosz for another two years, supporting himself as a political cartoonist for African American publications.
The Exploration of Experience
Romare Bearden began as a painter, depicting religious themes in oil and watercolor. His first solo exhibition was in Harlem in 1940, but had to put his art career on hold in 1942 when he was drafted into the US Army. He served in World War II in the 372nd Infantry Regiment, a racially segregated unit, until 1945 when he was honorably discharged.
That same year he showed his series, The Passion of Christ, at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York City. The reception of his work was overwhelmingly positive. One of the images from that series, He is Arisen, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was his first piece that was purchased by a museum and also his first piece put into a museum collection.
By 1950 Romare began to feel disillusioned and alienated by the systemic racism of American society. Using funds from the GI Bill, he to travelled to Paris and lived there for a couple of years. Romare met and befriended prominent creatives and intellectuals of the time, including Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. He also became a central figure in the black expat community in Paris. During that time he travelled Europe, studying art, literature, Buddhism, and philosophy. He explored techniques like Chinese painting and developed his collage process. It was around this time that his work also became more abstract, partly due to the influence of Picasso’s Cubist work.
When Romare returned the United States, he worked for the New York City Department of Social Services as a case worker. On nights and weekends, he continued to paint, developing his technique when he had the time.
How Abstract is Abstract Enough?
In the 1950s, Romare was dropped by the Samuel M. Kootz gallery because his art wasn’t keeping with the trends of the time – it simply wasn’t abstract or modern enough by their standards.
In 1954 Romare got a studio above the Apollo Theater. His style became more abstract and showed influences of his study of Chinese painting techniques. That same year he married dancer and choreographer Nanette Rohan.
He later relocated the studio to downtown New York, but Harlem was still very much a part of his work and central to his life. Romare was a case worker by day and an artist on the side until 1969 when was was able to fully support himself and Nanette with his art. He was able to open his own studio, started earning grants, and had time to work on commissions.
Through the Pages
Romare Bearden’s rise as an artist began in the 1940s, but it was in the 1960s when he was really seen as a master collage artist. That was when he started focusing primarily on his collage work. He had been struggling with “expressing his experiences as a Black man and the obscurity of abstract painting.”
The collages were made from cutting of popular magazines like Time (some of his work made the cover of magazines he tore pages from), African American magazines like Ebony and Jet, colored paper, and texture techniques with paint, graphite, and sandpaper. His work echoed the means of African American slave crafts, such as patchwork quilts, where they had to work with whatever materials were available to them. As one article describes his art, “Bearden crafted the African American experience in his works.”
In the early 1960s Romare joined the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, where his work was exhibited for the rest of his life. He also showed his work through the United States and sometimes in Europe.
In 1963 he created the Projections series, comprised of collage and photomontage techniques, photojournalism, and Pop Art. He depicted scenes of Pittsburgh and Harlem, but mostly Charlotte, North Carolina.
By the late 1960s Romare was a popular visiting professor at various universities. He also joined other artists to form the Cinque Gallery of New York. This was in direct protest to the 1969 exhibition Harlem on my Mind put on by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show did not allow black artists to exhibit and so Cinque was created to allow only black artists.
In 1973, Romare and Nanette made a second home in the Caribbean (St. Martin) where her ancestors were from. While there, he studied the culture and influence of Africans brought over through slave trade; themes that became apart of his work. His art also became more musical during this time, “from the urban blues of Kansas City and Harlem nightclubs, to the blues and church music of Mecklenburg, North Carolina.”
Romare Could Do Anything
Romare was a man of many talents. Although collage had become his primary medium, he continued to paint murals and series pieces for exhibitions. He “completed more than a dozen mural commissions in a variety of media including collage, ceramic tile, and faceted glass”.
He illustrated posters, wrote and illustrated books, and was a successful lyricist. Romare wrote songs for Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. He also helped out Nanette, occasionally designing programs, costumes, and sets for Alvin Ailey American Dance Company.
Social Activism and Legacy
Throughout his career, no matter what he was working on, Romare made sure to give back. Whether it was commentary in his art, opening a gallery as a form of protest, or creating an organization to help minority emerging artists – Romare wanted to give his community as much opportunity as possible to succeed. These are just some of his accomplishments and awards:
1963 – Founded the Spiral Group with Charles Alston and Normal Lewis
1964 – Became first art director of the Harlem Cultural Council
1966 – Elected to the American Academy of Design and the National Institute of Arts and Letters
1968 – Founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem
1969 – Cofounded the Cinque Gallery
1970 – Received the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship
1978 – Awarded Frederick Douglas Medal by the New York Urban League
1978 – Received the James Weldon Johnson Award from the NAACP
1987 – Received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan
1990 – The Romare Bearden Foundation was established
Romare Bearden died of bone cancer on March 12, 1988 in New York City. His ashes were scattered in St. Martin “as the French West Indies had been the subject of later works.” They never had kids, but Romare left a lasting legacy as both an activist and a creator.
There are a few things I need to address here. First, how the heck do you say his name?? I remember studying Romare Bearden back in high school (it’s been a minute) and we learned it as ro-MARE, two syllables, emphasis on the second syllable. According to his friend Albert Murray, it was actually pronounced RO-muh-re, three syllables, emphasis on the first. Murray also said Romare was named after a neighbor his mother liked.
The second thing is that there is far more information here than I can provide. Please explore the resources linked here. There are so many resources and so much to learn about Romare and the world he grew up in.
Finally, I don’t feel I did Romare Bearden’s work the justice it deserves with this article. I want to leave a couple of quotes here from my sources that have the words I didn’t seem to this month.
“One of Bearden’s works that best captures this amalgam of styles is titled The Block. It depicts a Harlem street, with row-house buildings and the bustling life of the neighborhood. At first glance, it’s a cacophony of shapes and images. But as the scene settles in, the faces of people catch the eye. Composed of two or more fragments of photos, they begin to reveal a lifetime of experiences.”
“His works’ complexity lies in their poetic abstraction, in which layered fragments of colour and pattern evoke the rhythms, textures, and mysteries of a people’s experience”
Thank you for reading! Don’t forget to check out our other Artists of the Month!