Romare Bearden had a long and prolific career as an artist, working in different styles before he turned to collages in the early 1960s, a change that brought widespread recognition to his work. He also wrote several books, curated exhibitions and wrote a jazz classic called “Sea Breeze” that was recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine.
Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1911 and spent the early part of his childhood in a large Victorian house with his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. His parents were college graduates and his grandparents owned the grocery store next door. The neighborhood was full of gardens and small lots where people raised chickens and grew vegetables and flowers – images that appear repeatedly in Bearden’s work.
This idyllic-sounding childhood was disrupted by a growing white supremacist movement in Charlotte. After a dramatic incident when Romare was kidnapped by a mob who saw his white skin and accused his mother of stealing him from a white family, the family fled to Harlem where they settled.
In Harlem, Bearden’s mother became the New York editor of an African American newspaper and brought together a group of Black intellectuals and artists who met regularly at her house. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald were among those who visited.
As a teenager, Bearden worked in the studio of sculptor Augusta Savage. After graduating from NYU in 1935, he studied with George Grosz at the Art Students’ League. Grosz’s work with collages may have influenced Bearden’s later interest in collages, but possibly the teachings that had more immediate impact were those about politics and art, which Bearden would have put into action while working as an artist for Black newspapers.
Bearden became a social worker in Harlem where he worked with Black migrants from the South. Though he grew up in relative comfort, Bearden had similar experiences of being uprooted and losing his home, leaving a permanent sense of loss and nostalgia that can be seen in his work.
When WWII began, Bearden enlisted and fought in an African American regiment. After the war, he spent time in Paris where he studied at the Sorbonne with Gaston Bachelard and met Henry Ossawa Tanner, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. In later visits, he became acquainted with Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and many others.
Bearden’s involvement with the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and the March on Washington led him to create an organization for Black artists called “Spiral.” The group met to discuss the responsibility of Black artists to create “a new visual order” and think of ways artists could contribute to the civil rights movement.
At one meeting, Bearden proposed making a collage as a collective project for the group. Though the others weren’t interested, Bearden followed through with the idea and in the early 1960s, he was working virtually full-time on his collages. One reviewer said that after 30 years of painting other themes, Bearden began depicting ‘narratives of rituals, myths, race and rights…” He took on the stories from mythology and the Bible and all the characters were Black.
Bearden developed innovative techniques for this new field. In 1964 he enlarged one series to 4 by 6 feet and, as Thomas Cole noted, “… by enlarging the images, he changed their relationship to the viewer; the small collages registered as windows into another world, but in the process of enlargement his figures assumed life-sized dimensions and shared the viewer’s space” (2014).
In 1964, he had an exhibition called “Projections” that was an immediate success and attracted more attention than his earlier works. Among the many collages he later created was a series that was based on the Odyssey -- Odysseus and Penelope were Black and Penelope and her servant were dressed like women that Bearden would have seen in his childhood in Charlotte.
Bearden said that the fragments cut from magazines triggered memories and helped him bring his past into the present. He re-created scenes from his childhood -- gardens, musicians, trains, and characters from his life in the South, such as the Conjuring woman who knew all about healing.
Bearden and the First World Festival of Black Arts, 1966
When the US government learned about the Festival in Dakar, they organized a US Committee to work with Senghor on America’s participation. It was the time of the Cold War and the US was competing with the Soviet Union to attract African allies. America needed to show Africans that they were not racist -- a tall order in 1966 with the memory of the Watts protests still vivid in people’s minds, along with all the everyday practices that violated the rights of African Americans. The US also wanted to use the festival to create links to francophone African countries. In the words of a US government agency, they wanted to break through the “Camembert curtain” that kept francophone African countries firmly tied to France (Blake 2011:50).
Bearden was an obvious choice to participate in the Festival and he initially accepted, though he later withdrew and became the spokesperson for the African American artists who refused to participate because visual artists were not being paid for their participation though musicians and dancers were. Bearden said that their protests were on behalf of all visual artists, regardless of color, but he and others were convinced that if they had been white, the US government would have found funds to pay them. He pointed out that the US government had contributed $400,000 to the festival and some of that money could have gone to the Black visual artists. It was worth noting, too, they said that visual artists participating in other government-sponsored events had been paid (Vincent 2017:96).
Bearden’s role in leading the protest against the US committee for the Festival was just one example of his activism. He was also one of the founders of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) that organized protests against The Metropolitan Museum in reaction to their “Harlem on My Mind” show that lacked participation by Black artists. He helped establish the Studio Museum in Harlem and left a legacy to create a foundation to help young Black artists. All this was in addition to his work as an artist, author and curator. He had a busy life and a friend said Bearden was like one of his many cats and that he, too, “lived nine lives—all at the same time.”
• National Gallery of Art, Washington. Romare Bearden: A Resource for Teachers. For the exhibition that took place at National Gallery of Art, Washington, September 14, 2003 – January 4, 2004. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/Education/learning-resources/teaching-packets/pdfs/bearden-tchpk.pdf.
• Jody Blake. “Cold War Diplomacy and Civil Rights Activism at the First World Festival of Negro Arts.” Studies in the History of Art 71 (2011): 43–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42622532.
• Mary Schmidt Campbell. “The Prevalence of Ritual: On Romare Bearden’s Projections.” September 6, 2018. The Paris Review https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/.
• Thomas B. Cole. “Maudell Sleet’s Magic Garden: Romare Bearden.” JAMA. 2014; 311(22): 2256-2257. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298956885_Cold_War_Diplomacy_and_Civil_Rights_Activism_at_the_First_World_Festival_of_Negro_Arts.
• Collage Volupté: The Collage Aesthetic in Art, Fashion, Design, Culture. “Matisse, Bearden, Wangechi Mutu.” October 7, 2013. https://collagevolupte.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/matisse-bearden-wangechi-mutu/.
• Glenda Gilmore. “In Search of Maudell Sleet’s Garden.” Southern Culture, reprinted from Human/Nature, Summer 2021. https://www.southerncultures.org/article/in-search-of-maudell-sleets-garden/.
• Greg Head. “Review: Romare Bearden’s Protean Artistry Affirmed in Noteworthy Show at Alan Avery.” Arts Atl. December 3, 2015. artsatl.org/review-romare-bearden/.
• Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. “Romare Bearden: Assembling America.” New York Review of Books. February 13, 2020. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/02/13/romare-bearden-assembling-america/.
• Cedric Vincent. “Tendencies and Confrontations: Dakar 1966.” In Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 43, Spring/Summer 2017.
• Paul Trachtman. “Romare Bearden: Man of Many Parts.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2004.
• Romare Bearden. Projections, at Cordier & Ekstrom, New York, October 6-24, 1964.