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American Collection

Romare Bearden



Romare Bearden, Missippi Monday/Ritual Bayou, lithograph and collage on board, dimensions vary with piece. Gift of Pierce & Jean Shannon

About the Artist

Bearden presented black life on its own terms
with all its riches and fullness...defining not only
the character of black American life, but also it conscience.

August Wilson, the African-American playwright, whose Pulitzer Prize winning play
The Piano Lesson was inspired by Bearden's painting of the same title.

Romare Bearden, one of the twentieth century's first collagists, magnificently transmuted the collage medium into personal and universal statements of African American culture. Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1914. His family moved to Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, at the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance, a Black cultural movement that created an exciting milieu in which black artists flourished and became "an identifiable force in American culture."(The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America)

Bearden graduated from New York University in 1935 with a degree in mathematics and went on to receive a graduate degree in social work at Columbia University. He worked as a case worker for the New York City Department of Social Services until 1966. His many interests over the years included playing professional baseball one summer in Boston, joining a jazz band, writing music such as the famous Sea Breeze recorded by Billy Eckstein and Tito Puente, designing sets for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and co-authoring books about art. Nanette Rohan, whom he married in 1954, would be the stabilizing influence in Bearden's life. In 1966, with her encouragement, he finally chose to concentrate on his art.

Let us now look at Bearden's work. Bearden responded to the improvisational nature of the collage medium and other influences around him. He carefully selected and accumulated images (photographs, magazine and newspaper clippings) which he kept in bags in his studio. Then he would choose those which most effectively completed his pieces. Aware of the Cubist movement's debt to African sculpture, he created faces inspired by African masks and sculpture of the Dogons of West Africa.

In Memories, the use of photographs of substances such as pavement and marble imparts strength to the work. Byzantine Freize reflects Bearden's admiration for the early Byzantine artists (from the Byzantine Empire, 5th through the 12th centuries) and their skillful mosaic-like use of color in paintings. Bearden's friendship with Mr. Wu, owner of a Chinese bookstore, introduced the artist to the Chinese masters and their use of negative space. Carolina Interior artist effectively demonstrates this juxtaposition of negative and positive space. The interlocking rectangular relationship, which set the structure for most of his paintings, suggests the influence of the early twentieth-century abstract painter, Mondrian. Bearden's works were layered with messages of the African American experience and "the cultural diversity that is part of all our lives." (Gail Gelburd, Romare Bearden: A Graphic Odyssey)

Bearden received recognition and honors during his life including many national and international solo exhibitions, five honorary doctoral degrees and the prestigious President's National Medal of Art in 1988. He died in New York City in March, 1988.

by Muriel Weithorn ASU Art Museum Board Member and Research Volunteer


Washington, M. Bunch. The Art of Romare Bearden, NY Abrams, 1970

Unseld, Teresa S. Portfolio African American Artists, Dale-Seymour Publication, Palo Alto,CA
USA (pgs 39-42)

Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists, Univ. of Cal Press, Berkely, 1990

Schwarzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. NY, 1990

Bearden, Romare. A Graphic Odyssey, edited by Gail Gelburd, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Press - Philidelphia, PA, 1992

The Studio Museum In Harlem, Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, Abradale Press, Harry N. Abram, Inc. Publ., NY, 1994 Ed.