Romare Bearden is another black American I’ll feature for #BlackHistoryMonth who is not un-famous, but whose name should be more recognized than it is. Bearden was an artist and art-historian of black art. He celebrated the black experience through oil and watercolor painting and collage that incorporated torn magazine images.
Bearden was born in North Carolina in 1911, but was raised in New York, then Pittsburgh. His family was college-educated and relatively financially successful, which was not ordinary for the time, especially in the Deep South. With the installation of the Jim Crows Laws, his family, like many others, moved north in what is called the “Great Migration.”
As a child, his family exposed him to many influential names involved in the Harlem Renaissance. His mother, Bessye Bearden, was actively involved with New York City’s Board of Education, was the founder and president of the Colored Women’s Democratic League, and was a New York correspondent for The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.
He first went to college at Lincoln University, the nation’s first historically black college. He transferred to Boston University, but eventually graduated from NYU in 1935 with a B.S. in mathematics. While he didn’t study art, much less even think about becoming artist, while at NYU he worked as a cartoonist for the university’s humor magazine.
In 1935, he decided to become an artist when he met a group who later became the Harlem Artists Guild. He then joined an informal artist collective called the 306 Group, and he enrolled at the Art Students League. This is where he began to study under German artist George Grosz. To survive, he would make money as a political cartoonist and he became a social worker in Harlem (a job he would do throughout his artistic career.) He joined the army during World War II, serving from 1942-1945.
At various points in career, he we was influenced by Diego Rivera, Matisse, and Picasso. He incorporated ideas such as “patchwork quilts and the necessity of making artwork from whatever materials were available.” The common themes seen in his work are ritual, music, and family. He uses poetic abstraction, fragments of color, and textured shape.
Bearden began doing collage during the civil rights movement. “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.”
Bearden was also a poet, the author or coauthor of several books, and he wrote many songs. He co-wrote the jazz song “Seabreeze”, which was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine (a former high school classmate of Bearden), and then recorded again in 2003 by Branford Marsalis, on a CD entitled Romare Bearden Revealed. This CD also contains a number of new compositions by Marsalis that were inspired by Bearden’s art. Click here for a video from the Bearden Foundation about the music he was involved in.
Bearden’s fame has grown since the 1980s. With the greater inclusiveness of African American art within white mainstream texts and college classes, Bearden is no longer on the margins of art history. This greater exposure is also seen in the many museum collections and exhibitions that have featured Bearden’s work over the past two decades.
The Romare Bearden Foundation was established as a nonprofit organization by the estate of Romare Bearden in 1990, two years after the artist died, in order to aid in the education and training of talented art students.