Romare Bearden

Artist Biography

Breakthrough African American artist in the twentieth century

By Chelsea DeLay

Raised in North Carolina amidst civil rights activists, Romare H. Bearden was an abstract expressionist primarily known for his complex collages that addressed racial issues. Strongly influenced by cubism, his works can be identified by certain telltale elements, particularly an emphasis on hand gestures, incorporation of family photographs, and the insertion of a small still life or a landscape.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Suggested Resources
VII. Notes


I. Biography

Romare Howard Bearden was born September 2, 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father, a sanitation worker, and his mother, an influential black activist, moved to New York City in 1914, where they became deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement.[1] The Bearden household became a common meeting ground for fellow supporters, hosting some of Harlem’s most prominent political activists, writers, and musicians. Consequently, Romare’s early exposure to the plights of African Americans became the foundation for his artistic career.

Initially enrolled at Lincoln University in 1929 to study mathematics, Bearden transferred to Boston University a year later, where he played baseball and began to publish political cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper.[2] He went on to attend New York University, graduating in 1935 with a Bachelors Degree in Education. Subsequently, Bearden began taking classes at the Art Students League in 1936, studying under George Grosz and Jacob Lawrence. Thriving under the instruction of Grosz, Bearden credited his mentor as the man who taught him to think like a painter.[3] Unable to ignore the allure of the New York art scene, Bearden began to associate and exhibit with a group of Harlem-based artists known as “The 306.”[4]

In 1942 Bearden enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to an all black infantry division based in Harlem.[5] He traveled to Paris in 1950 on the GI Bill, where he met artists Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi, and Pablo Picasso, and attended classes at Sorbonne.[6] Bearden’s encounter with Picasso had a lasting impact on his style, and his early works used the cubist method to fragment and flatten spatial perspective, generating hatched, overlapping lines.[7]

The year 1963 proved to be an important year in Romare’s career. He was a founding member of “Spiral,” an artist group created with the intent of addressing race issues in art. At one of their meetings, he proposed that they create a collaborative piece using magazine clippings, which was collectively abandoned by all but Bearden himself.[8] Upon completion, the collage Bearden created proved to be his breakout work, titled Projections. The success of Projections achieved what Bearden had been striving for as an abstract expressionist: the complex act of drawing inspiration from art history and balancing it with his personal experiences as a black man, allowing them to culminate in a manifestation of what he considered as a current representation of African American identity.[9]

Bearden’s artistic success in creating collages that address aspects of black culture, life, and history was a pioneering effort that integrated the black experience into mainstream art of the twentieth century.[1]0 When discussing the reasons for his success, Bearden once admitted that, “the biggest thing I learned was reaching into your consciousness of black experience and relating it to universals.”[11]

Bearden’s success was not limited to just his artistic career; He went on to co-author several books, and in the late 1960’s, helped found the Unique Gallery, which was a provided young artists with exhibition spaces.[12] In 1987, Bearden was diagnosed with bone cancer, and passed away from a stroke one year later in New York, when he was seventy-five years old.

II. Chronology

1911 Born September 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina
1914 The Bearden family moves to Harlem, New York
1929 Enrolls at Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania
1930 Transfers to Boston University
1932 Transfers to New York University
1935 Graduates from NYU with a Bachelors of Science degree
Closely associated with the Harlem Artists group “The 306”
1936–37 Attends classes at the Art Students League in New York
1940s Begins to use African symbols in his paintings
1942–45 Serves in the United States Army
1950–51 Travels to France to study, receives a certificate from the Sorbonne
1952 Marries Nanette Rohan
1956 Suffers a nervous breakdown
1963 Founding member of the artist group "Spiral"
Begins working with collages
1965 First solo museum show at the Corcoran Gallery
1971 Museum of Modern Art opens the traveling exhibition entitled Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual
1987 Awarded the National Medal of Arts by then President Ronald Reagan
1988 Dies at New York Hospital, cause of death attributed to a stroke

III. Collections

Albright Museum, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Brooklyn Museum, NY
City Art Museum of St. Louis, MO
Flint Institute of Art, MI
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Museum of Modern Art, NY
Newark Museum, NJ
North Carolina Museum, NC
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Williams College, OH

VI. Exhibitions

Group Exhibitions

1937, 1939 Harlem Art Center, NY
1938 American Art Gallery
1941 McMillen Gallery
Downtown Gallery, NYC
1943 Institute of Modern Art, MA
Smith College
1944 Minneapolis Art Gallery, OH
Museum of Art, OH
Albany Institute of History,
Atlanta University, GA
1947, 1954 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
1955 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1965 Rockford College, IL
1966 Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, CA
1966, 1972 American Academy of Arts & Letters
1967 Bundy Museum, VT
Oakland Arts Museum, CA
1968 State University of New York, NY
Dartmouth College, NH
1969 Rhode Island School of Design, RI
Memorial Art Gallery, NY
1970 Visual Arts Gallery, NY
Contemporary Arts Museum, TX
New Jersey State Museum
Roberson Center for the Arts & Sciences, NY
UC Santa Barbara, CA
National Center of Afro-American Artists, MA
James A. Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA
1971–72 University of Iowa, IA
1972 Sidney Janis Gallery, NY
Pace Gallery, NY

Solo Exhibitions

1940 Studio of Ad Bates, NY
1945 The G. Place Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, NY
1946 Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, NY
1947 Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, NY
1948 Niveau Gallery, NY
1955 Barone Gallery, NY
1960 Michael Warren Gallery, NY
1961 Cordier & Warren Gallery, NY
1964 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
1965 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, NY
1966 Carnegie Institute of Technology, PA
Bundy Art Gallery, VA
1967 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
J.L. Hudson Gallery, MI
1968 University Art Gallery, NY
Spelman College, GA
1969 University of Iowa Museum of Art, IA
Williams College Museum of Art, MA
Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
1970 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
Tricia Karliss Gallery, MA
1971 The Museum of Modern Art, NY (Retrospective)
UC Museum of Art, CA
1973 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
1977 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
1978 Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, NY
Davidson College Art Gallery, NC
Sheldon Ross Gallery, MI
1981 Mint Museum, NC
Mississippi Museum, MI
Baltimore Museum of Art, MD
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA
1986 The Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY
1989 ACA Galleries, NY
1991 The Studio Museum, NY
The Museum of Contemporary Art, IL
The Wight Art Gallery, CA
The Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
The National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
The University of Oklahoma Museum of Art, OK
Amarillo Art Center, TX
The Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, KS
1992 Louis Stern Galleries, CA
2011–12 Mint Museum, NC; Tampa Museum of Art, FL; Newark Museum, NJ (Traveling exhibition)

V. Memberships

Black Academy of Art and Letters
National Institute of Arts and Letters

VI. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter H. Who Was Who in American Art. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999. p. 249
Gelburd, Gail, Thelma Golden, and Albert Murray. Romare Bearden In Black-and-White Photomontage Projections, 1967. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997.
Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden, His Life and Art. Introductory essay by Carroll Greene. New York: The Museum of Modern, 1990.
Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles (Romare Bearden): Putting Something Over Something Else.” The New Yorker. New York: Nov. 28, 1977, p. 53-77

VII. Notes

1. Julia Markus, “Romare Bearden’s Art Does Go Home Again–To Conquer,” in The Smithsonian (March 1981): 72.
2. Paul Trachtman, “Romare Bearden: Man of Many Parts,” in The Smithsonian (February 2004): 64.
3. Ibid.
4. Richard Powell, Conjuring Bearden (Nasher, Massachusetts: Duke University, 2006).
5. Trachtman 65.
6. Powell.
7. Claire Schnieder, A Look at Romare Bearden: Oscillitating Toward Balance (Buffalo, New York: Albright Knox Gallery, 2002).
8. Blake Gopnick, “A World Gone to Pieces,” in The Washington Post (September 14, 2003).
9. Lee Stephens Glazer, “Signifying Identity: Art and Race is Romare Bearden’s Projections,” in The Art Bulletin vol. 76 (September 1999): 411–16.
10. Gopnick.
11. Grace Glueck, “A Brueghel from Harlem,” in The New York Times (February 22, 1975): D29.
12. C. Gerald Fraser, “Romare Bearden, Collagist and Painter Dies at 75,” in The New York Times (March 13, 1988): A:36.

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