Romare Bearden is among the preeminent artists of his generation. His powerful works represent the places where he lived and worked: the rural South; northern cities, principally Pittsburgh and New York’s Harlem; and the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Religious subjects and ritual practices, jazz clubs and brothels, and history and literature are overlapping themes in his work. Throughout his career Bearden also made forays into abstraction, usually with musical associations.
Though he did not become a full-time artist until he had reached 50 years of age, Romare Bearden is today one of America’s leading painters. His art is very much a product of his own experience. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, Bearden migrated to New York in time to participate in the brief cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Painter Charles Alston became a close friend during that period and Fats Waller and Duke Ellington were among his earliest collectors.
Later Bearden played semi-pro baseball with the Boston Tigers, earned a degree in mathematics from New York University in 1935, and took a job as a New York City welfare caseworker during the depression to support himself (Except for army service during WWII and an interlude in Paris, Bearden kept the job until 1966 – the first year he sold enough paintings to make possible a full-time career as an artist.) He used the G.I. Bill to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and, after returning to New York, moonlighted as a songwriter. He composed about 20 songs, some written for Billie Holiday who was working as a receptionist in his building on 125th Street. “Seabreeze,” his one big hit, was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie.
In the Sixties, Bearden began to assimilate his wealth of experience into the bright, image-rich collages now most often associated with him. They consist of bits of photos, magazine clippings, pieces of colored paper and fabric, and figurative brush strokes. Upon sustained viewing, the loosely fragmented collages lose their simplicity and take on an interpretive order. Among his favorite subjects are scenes from his childhood depicting life in the South. “I never left Charlotte except physically,” says Bearden.