One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Romare Howard 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.