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 Romare Howard Bearden  (1911 - 1988)

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Lived/Active: New York/North Carolina      Known for: modernist African-American figure and landscape painting, collage

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Working in a modernist style, Romare Bearden, as a Black American, tried to express on canvas and collage the complexities and uniqueness of being a minority in American society.  Many of his themes dealt with music.  Another strong presence in many of Bearden's works is trains.  Bearden felt that there was a commonality, or link between trains and their symbolic tie to life; he saw trains as communicating life's fluctuations and constant change.  He also saw this in jazz, so in many of his works the viewer will see images of both trains and jazz.

Bearden's use of color was also unique.  He was strongly affected by a trip he made to the Caribbean.  Because he lived in such urban, "dirty" cities as New York, Bearden was overwhelmed by the rich, vivid, "clean" colors of the tropics.  He soaked in these colors, and used them in his works to try and bring a little of that experience to his viewers back home in the city.  Through all of Bearden's wide oeuvre, and all of his motivations for painting in a certain style, it all comes back to the same quote:  "My intention is to reveal through pictorial complexities the life I know."  Bearden succeeded in revealing those complexities, made possible by his knowledge of his own life experiences.

Bearden was highly praised critically, but this high praise was never matched by a high price for his work.  Bearden never considered himself a black artist, either, although many wanted to pigeonhole him as such.

His tone was affectionate and celebratory, and subjects include many aspects of American life from that in New York City to Southern voodoo women that recalled experiences in his youth in rural North Carolina.  During the 1960s he turned to collages dealing with the daily life of black people.

He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and spent his youth in Harlem of New York City, where his father was very active in the New York arts scene.  Bearden remembered having artists and musicians in the family home all the time, a presence that carried over into his own adult lifestyle.  When he began to live on his own, it was his apartment that became the gathering place for artists and musicians.  Bearden became a huge jazz and blues fanatic through this lifelong exposure, and he constantly incorporated his love of music into his art.

In 1935, he graduated from New York University with a degree in mathematics, and the following year he studied with George Grosz at the Art Students League. Although he studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, Bearden never had a formal education in art making, but this did not stop him from following his heart and pursuing something that he truly loved to do.  From 1938, he was intermittently employed as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Service and also was a song writer with several published works.

Early in Bearden's art career he met Stuart Davis, another successful painter of the time. Davis was also strongly influenced by jazz, and he showed Bearden how to visualize relationships between painting and jazz, which may not initially seem to share many similarities.

Bearden, through associations with other artists such as Davis as well as his own self-study, developed a strong link between the two disciplines.  For example, jazz and painting can be "hot" or "cool."  Both require great order and integrity. Both have improvisation as a key ingredient in the creative process. In his painting, Bearden sought connections.  And as in many great jazz works, Bearden refused to "close" his painting--he left the painting open to interpretation and manipulation by the viewer.

In 1974, he did a huge commissioned mural for Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, but it was rejected because it had bared female breasts and because it had Black American images but nothing that reflected the local Latino population.  The mural sat in a warehouse until personnel of Bellevue Hospital rescued and installed it, with its final location being the hospital chapel.

Artist Statement:

It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda . . [but] the life of my people as I know it, passionately and dispassionately as Bruegel.  My intention is to reveal through pictorial complexities the life I know.

Romare Bearden made this statement in response to why his art works are usually of the same themes of jazz and music.
 
  
Prepared by David Barrett, Museum Studies Graduate Intern, and Edited by Karen Janovy, Curator of Education, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, January 1998.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following was compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte,  North Carolina in 1911 and spent his childhood summers in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina.  He moved with his family to Harlem as a child. and spent his adolescence in Pittsburgh.  He graduated from New York University with a degree in math.  His mother, Bessye, was the New York editor of The Chicago Defender and played host to  such people as W.E.D. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. 

Romare was an accomplished jazz musician.  He wrote a song that was recorded by Billy Eckstine. He traveled to Paris as a young man to study the modernists.  When he returned he took a job as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Human Resources which he held until the late !960s.  Bearden was also a brilliant writer.  If he had elected to write rather than paint, he would have left a legacy in writing as important and universal as the legacy he left us in paintings and collages.   

Bearden enjoyed his only formal art training under George Grosz at the Art Students' League.  In the early 1960s he abandoned abstract painting and began constructing collages, with ingeniously incongruous figure fragments, blazing reds and subtle grays, surgeon's scissor cuts.  He worked in a studio above the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.  His collages were primarily of black city life; his compositions were vibrant with energy, depicting the multiple facets of street life.  Bearden worked indefatigably to secure equal recognition for black artists.  Many felt that he did not quite make it to the top of the art world because he was black, albeit a heavy-set light-skinned black.    When Rearden returned from his year in Paris he moved from Harlem to Canal Street and married dancer Nanette Rohan. He died in 1988.   

Sources include:   
Shown in State University of New York at Albany and the Museum of Modern Art, NY.   
Time Magazine, October 27, 1967   
Peter Plagens in Newsweek, April 29, 1991   
ARTnews, October 1986  
ARTnews, February 1992   
ARTnews, Summer, 1988.


Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, A-D):
Best known for the vibrant collages he began making in the 1960s, Romare Bearden also created paintings, prints and photographs in the course of a prolific and inventive career. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, to middle-class African-American parents; during the Great Migration his family resettled in New York. Although Bearden lived in North Carolina only briefly as a child, he spent summers there with his extended family. African-American life both in urban settings and in the rural South offered him a rich source of subject matter. The Bearden family took an active role in the Harlem Renaissance, and their circle of friends included Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

In 1935 Bearden completed a degree at New York University, where he took many art courses. Already an accomplished cartoonist and illustrator, Bearden immediately began further study with former Dadaist George Grosz at the Art Students League. Later, after serving at domestic posts during World War Two, Bearden traveled to Paris with assistance of the G.I. Bill to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Although he began his artistic career as a social realist, his time in Europe steered his work in a more abstract and improvisational direction. During this period, Bearden engaged in intense study of the art historical tradition, assimilating themes and, at times, compositional structures of past works.

From the late 1930s to 1967 Bearden held intermittent employment as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services. His job gave him glimpses of the struggles of people, particularly New York Gypsies, to keep their culture alive amid the pressures of urban life. By the same token, Bearden was keenly aware that the rural, African-American culture of the South was disappearing, and he felt a strong pull toward documenting it in his work. With regard to this subject matter, Bearden wrote in 1969, “It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in terms of propaganda . . . [but] the life of my people as I know it, passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel. My intention is to reveal through pictorial complexity the life I know.” (1)

For Bearden, the medium of collage, which he adopted in the early 1960s, provided the means to this end. Each piece brings together a vast array of materials, patterns, and colors, synthesizing all into an elegant whole. Bearden’s intellectual frame of reference is similarly broad and encompasses everything from popular culture, to religion, to classical myth. In both design and spirit, his work celebrates the diversity of the human community. Bearden used the phrase “prevalence of ritual” to describe his view of continuity across generations and cultures, in which truths specific to the African-American experience find expression in their connection to universal themes and imagery.

In the late 1960s Bearden tended to treat his human subjects as monumental, iconic, and magnificent, no matter what their social standing. Posed frontally or in profile, in the foreground, they often possess the formality of figures in ancient Egyptian or Greek art, or in Mexican murals or quattrocento Italian painting. In the 1970s, landscape motifs became more prominent in Bearden’s work. Beginning in 1973, Bearden began spending part of each year at a second home on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where his wife, Nanette, had family roots.

Quite early in his career, Bearden developed ties with downtown galleries and artists, including fellow jazz lover Stuart Davis. He regularly showed his work in New York and elsewhere beginning in 1939, including at a series of sell-out shows at Cordier & Ekstrom , New York, in the 1960s and 70s. By the time of his death in 1988, he had achieved critical success and paved the way for future African-American artists through his involvement with the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Cinque Gallery.

Bearden’s work is included in major public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. He has had retrospectives at the Mint Museum of Art (1980), the Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1991). In 2003 the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., organized a major retrospective of Bearden’s work that subsequently traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

1. Romare Bearden, “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings,” Leonardo 2 (January 1969), quoted in Alexandra Anderson-Spivy, “Romare Bearden: Modern Classicist,” Romare Bearden: The Human Condition (New York: ACA Galleries, 1991), n. p.

Biography from RoGallery.com:
Romare Bearden, painter and collage maker, filled his works with the symbols and myths of the American black experience.

Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1914.  Soon after his birth, his family moved to New York City's Harlem.  During the mid-1930s, when Bearden was a student of George Grosz at the Art Students League, he founded the "306 Group" for black artists living in Harlem.

Romare Bearden was honored during his lifetime and posthumously with numerous prestigious awards, publications and exhibitions.  Along with representation in the important public and private collections, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and honored with a groundbreaking retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

A master collagist, Bearden is celebrated today as a preeminent, highly prolific artist of exceptional and multifaceted talents and interests.  He was a jazz aficionado, and author of scholarly books, a song writer/lyricist as well an arts activist, and an engaged humanist.  Bearden incorporated into his art work a rich montage of influences from American, African, Asian, and European art and culture, and took inspiration from memories and experiences of the rural South, the urban North and the Caribbean.

After he served in the army during World War II, Bearden's work appeared in several well-publicized shows.  During the 1940s, he combined African symbols, such as masks and "conjur women" with stylized realism.  In 1950, he went to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne.  In Paris he met James Baldwin, Constantin Brancusi and George Braque, all of whom influenced his work.  He returned to New York City in 1954.

After his stay in Paris, Bearden's work became more abstract.  He used oil paint almost as if it were watercolor, layering washes of indistinct shape over thickened bars of woven colors.  Shapes seem to float on the surface, in part because of their softened, muted tones.

Bearden was profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During this period, he used collage to express the rhythms of black music. Symbolic masks and faces float in interiors and landscapes.

In 1963, Bearden began work on the Prevalence of Ritual series. Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings (1973, North Carolina National Bank Corporation), a collage of cut and torn paper with polymer paint, is typical of the way he mingled abstract shapes and landscapes to evoke his memories of the customs and ceremonies of the black south.

Throughout his career, Bearden promoted opportunities for black artists.  He has served as art director of the Harlem Cultural Council, and helped organize the Cinque Gallery.  In 1969, he wrote The Painter's Mind with Carl Holty.

Selected Solo Exhibitions:

2003 The Art of Romare Bearden, retrospective exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art Washington, DC.  Traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum in New York, and the High Museum in Atlanta.

1991 Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden retrospective exhibition organized by the Studio Museum of Harlem. Traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Wight Gallery, Los Angeles, The High Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

1971 Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, one of Bearden's first retrospectives opened at the Museum of Modern Art, NY in 1971.

A Graphic Odyssey, an exhibition of his prints traveled for over 6 years to museums all over the U.S.  His work is included in many mportant public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Mint Museum, the Detroit Institue of the Arts, and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Biography from Tobin Reese Fine Art:
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was an African-American painter whose works spanned the mediums of collage, cartoons, and oils. In addition to the visual arts, he was also a writer and composer. He is known for his depictions of religious subjects and everyday life, part of his quest to bring humanity back into a soulless world.

Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina; he and his family moved to New York City shortly thereafter. His interest in art blossomed as a student at New York University after transferring from Lincoln University and Boston University. Although he received a degree in science and education, his growing interest in art led him to continue his studies under George Grosz at the Art Students League. Throughout his studies, he often worked as a cartoonist for a variety of different publications, many aimed specifically at the African-American market. His paintings often reflected life in the South.

Romare Bearden's time in the United States Army during World War II changed his artistic outlook. He began to create art not with an eye for a specific style but for the emotions that he experienced during the war. By trying to capture a sense of humanity in his works, he tried to make up for the lack of humanity that he found in war. Studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne in France in 1950 further strengthened this viewpoint. Due to his non-adherence to any particular style, his works often straddled the line between representational and abstract, leading galleries with a more precise artistic goal to be reluctant to show his work despite his growing popularity. During this time, Bearden turned more to songwriting, focusing on his musical talent. He also married and purchased a second home on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean.

In the 1960s, Bearden was a founding member of The Spiral, a group consisting of African-American artists; the artists in The Spiral did not conform to any specific style but instead focussed on promoting the works of African-American artists. Bearden began to focus on collage in response to the growing civil rights movement of the time. Due to the advent of glossy paper in magazines, Bearden was able to experiment with the shiny finish in order to develop his art style further. In addition, he found work painting murals. He continued painting into his old age, receiving the National Medal of Arts in 1987 for his work.

Bearden passed away in 1988 from bone cancer. In 1990, his estate founded The Romare Bearden Foundation, an organization which gives grants to emerging artists. His works continue to be featured in shows today.

Source: Ian Martyn for Tobin Reese Fine Art

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery:
Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Boston University, New York University (B.A. 1935), the Art Students League (1936-37), and Columbia University. During the 1930s, Bearden was involved with 306, an art school and workshop in Harlem where his cousin by marriage, Charles Alston, was a leading instructor.

From 1942-1945, Bearden served in the United States Army, and in 1950, he used funds from the G.I. Bill to travel to Paris, where he studied art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne and met, among others, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Joan Miró.

He was a founding member of Spiral group (1963) and a co-founder with Norman Lewis and Ernest Crichlow of the Cinque Gallery, a non-profit organization that showed the work of minority artists (1969). Bearden’s early work belongs to the school of social realism, but after his return from Europe his images became more abstract.

In the early 1960s, Bearden began to make collages. For Bearden the collages were "an attempt to redefine the image of man in terms of the black experience." By integrating new and old materials, Bearden created complex scenes that were often inspired by the African-American experience, mythology and religion.

Bearden’s work has been celebrated in numerous museum exhibitions across the United States, and in 1990 the Romare Bearden Foundation was established to preserve the legacy of the artist. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC organized a retrospective for 2003.

Biography from GallArt.com:
From Beverly, Massachusetts, Will Barnet became a leading 20th century New York based artist, best known for figurative paintings enhanced by abstract arrangements and printmaking. He was a key figure in the New York movement called Indian Space Painting, artists who based their abstract and semi-abstract work on Native American Art.

Barnet studied at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1928 to 1930 and then at the Art Students League in New York, where he focused on printmaking. He taught briefly at Cornell, Yale, and Cooper Union, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Museum School, Boston. In 1934, he became the printer for the League and from 1945 to 1980 was Instructor of Painting at the League.

Throughout his career he worked on woodcuts, etching, and lithographs, Barnet was quoted saying “I wasn’t so concerned with beautiful line, mass interested me more than line. The hardest thing is to take a line and make it into something that is contained.” His woodcuts are starkly black and white, and the lithographs have a full range of tones.

Until 1939, his style was realistic, but he did many abstract paintings of social realist themes between 1940s and 1960, but they were much more controlled than those of many of his contemporary Abstract Expressionist peers. In fact many of his pieces were purely geometric, exploring the rectangle. In the latter part of his career of over 8-years, he explored both abstraction and realism, with all of them carefully executed

Biography from Jerald Melberg Gallery:
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1911, Romare Bearden, by the time of his death in 1988, had achieved a stature known by few artists during their lifetimes.  He was, and still is, considered America’s greatest collagist and was thus honored by receiving the National Medal of Arts in 1987 from then President Reagan. 

The artist’s works are in the permanent collections of most every major American Museum including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Retrospectives of Bearden’s art have been organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Council for Creative Projects.

Throughout his life, Bearden depicted many rituals and social customs of twentieth century rural Black America. The images of spiritual ceremonies, baptisms and burial, industrial hardships, musical arrangements and daily life have become the themes that critics and collectors most frequently associate with his work.  Visually and emotionally stimulating, Romare Bearden’s collages and prints are beautiful to behold and fantastic to contemplate.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
One of the most important and influential African American artists of the twentieth century, Romare Bearden succinctly clarified his professional aspirations when he declared in a 1969 interview, “My intention is to reveal through pictorial complexity the life I know.” For Bearden—whose legacy is equally grounded in his contributions as a groundbreaking arts activist and distinguished scholar—that meant experiencing other cultures and examining the relationship between different modes of personal expression, such as music, dance, literature, religion, philosophy, and fine art. A light-skinned man with Anglo features, Bearden chose to “redefine the image of man in the terms of the Negro experience” through an extraordinary oeuvre that included narrative paintings executed in a Social Realist manner to masterful modern collages. Even in his abstract works, however, Bearden never entirely removed the figural from his art, which ranged from allegorical compositions to urban scenes to rural genre subjects inspired by his youth spent in the American South.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden moved with his family to New York City when he was still a toddler. As part of the Great Migration, his parents became active participants in the Harlem Renaissance, and their home served as a meeting place for artists, musicians, and writers, including Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois. Throughout his youth, Bearden spent summers in North Carolina, encountering there an altogether different black culture than the one he knew in Harlem.

After receiving a degree in education from New York University in 1935, Bearden began working as a social worker, a position he would hold for over thirty years. While at NYU, he had contributed political cartoons to campus and community publications, a pursuit which eventually led him to painting. Bearden subsequently undertook formal art training at the Art Students League, and within three years, New York galleries were regularly exhibiting his canvases.

Following military service at a domestic post during World War II, Bearden used funding from the GI Bill to study philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950. Not only did Bearden learn about the traditional art history canon, he also immersed himself in modern art, interacting with avant garde artists such as Constantin Brancusi, George Braque, and others. Bearden’s experience in Paris precipitated his stylistic transition to abstraction, wherein he used watery oils to create soft, muted tones and to render shapes that appear to be free-floating.

Upon his return to New York City in 1952, Bearden acquired a studio above the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and began creating the collages for which he is best known. In these works, incongruously fragmented figures—composed of various colors, patterns, and textures—populate a flat, vibrant picture plane. Often, the union of disjointed forms signifies Bearden’s perennial quest to synthesize the relationship between art and jazz music, another of Bearden’s passions.

Following in his parents’ footsteps, Bearden was passionately engaged in Harlem-based cultural and artistic movements. He was involved in the establishment of several important arts organizations and venues, such as “306” (which met in his cousin Charles Alston’s studio), the Spiral Group (with Hale Woodruff, Merton Simpson, and others), the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Cinque Gallery. His role as a cultural pioneer was confirmed when, in 1964, he became the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council.

His paintings had been exhibited at various galleries and institutions since the 1930s, but the retrospective exhibition of his paintings organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 canonized his significance to modern American art. A member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and 1987 recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, Romare Bearden’s works are included in the foremost public and private collections in this country and abroad.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


Biography from The State Museum of Pennsylvania:
Studied at New York University; Art Students League, N.Y.; Columbia University (Mathematics); Sorbonne, Paris (Philosophy and Art History).  Artist in Residence, Spelman College (1968).  Lectured in Afro-American Art at Williams College.  Artist in Residence at University of Delaware (1970).

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