Romare Bearden is one of the most inventive and original artists of our time. He transformed the medium of collage into a vehicle for his own highly personal artistic expression.
Born in Charlotte, NC, he moved in 1914 with his parents to Harlem, NY as part of the Great Migration North. His parents became important figures in the cultural and political life of Harlem and opened their home to prominent politicians, musicians, writers and journalists. This gave their gifted son an early exposure to art, music and literature; interests he continued to develop throughout his life.
In 1932 he graduated from NYU with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. During the 30s he also attended the Art Students League in New York City where he studied under George Grosz. Bearden’s early figurative works portray varied aspects of African American life; themes he revisited throughout his artistic career.
In the 40s, after his early exploration with Social Realism, like many American artists, he turned his attention to Cubist inspired works. These oils and watercolors, executed during this period, reveal a skillful adaptation of the geometric dissection and fragmentation of forms presented by Picasso, Braque and Gris thirty years before. These works address subjects as diverse as biblical themes and works inspired by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, the French satirist Francoise Rabelais and Homer’s Iliad. These works move away from a specific focus of the African American experience and towards universal themes of heroism, man and nature and the human condition.
In the 50s he traveled to Paris and Italy under the G.I. Bill. In Paris he studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne. In Italy he was deeply influenced by the frescoes of Giotto and Michelangelo. However, when he returned to the United States he concentrated on songwriting. In 1954 he married Nanette Rohan who encouraged him to return to making art. The works executed during this period are characterized by a reduction and simplification of the painted surface. This was a result of his association with Mr. Wu, an instructor of Chinese calligraphy. Under Mr. Wu’s guidance Bearden studied the principles of Chinese art and experimented with layering painted papers and then tearing them away to produce collages. These works anticipate Bearden’s mature artworks. When he returned to his making art on a full-time basis he built on the strong foundation of his earlier studies at the Art Students League, his early exposure to art and music, and his first hand study of masterpieces of Western European Art.
During the 60s Bearden returned to creating art that addressed the African American experience. In 1963 he, along with African American artists Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis and Charles Alston, formed the Spiral Group. The group’s mission was to develop a mode of expression and style that would promote African American dignity and self-respect while also confronting issues related to the Civil Rights Movement. A group collage project was proposed in order to signify their political and artistic agreement. Although the project was never finished it represents a turning point in Bearden’s oeuvre.
The works executed during the last two decades of his life are predominantly collages, a medium to which he turned for his own highly personal artistic expression. Combining commercially printed reproductions from books, magazines and postcards with photographs, watercolor and other materials he created a distinctive voice within the medium. In his celebration of the African American experience Bearden was inspired by his own recollections of the life and people he knew from his childhood in Harlem, NY, Pittsburgh, PA and Mecklenburg, NC. He was equally interested in depicting urban life and street scenes as he was in portraying aspects of life in the rural South. His life-long love of Jazz and Blues influenced the works he executed. These artworks recognize both the sophistication of New York Jazz culture and the roots of that culture found in Country, Rhythm and Blues.
As he developed his collages through the 60s and into the 70s, the elements and details became more simplified and more geometric in their construction. During the 70s the artwork became more colorful with deeper tones and was executed with lush palette. This new development was a direct result of the annual trips the Beardens made to St. Martin where Nanette’s family had a home.
During the 80s he spent much of his time in St. Martin and executed many watercolors that portray the verdant landscape, sandy beaches, deep blue water and tropical birds.
Romare Bearden has had numerous solo museum exhibitions including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Bearden’s work can be found in many public collections such as Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Carnegie Art Institute, Pittsburgh, PA; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, NY; Studio Museum In Harlem, NY; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; and Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.
He has been the recipient of five honorary Doctorate degrees and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was honored on June 18, 1987 with The National Medal of the Arts Award. He died on March 12, 1988 in New York City.