Romare Bearden: Man of Many Parts

A new exhibition showcases Bearden's innovative collages and stakes a claim for him in the pantheon of 20th-century American artists

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In Harlem, his mother became an influential social activist and political figure, his father, a city sanitation inspector. The writers, musicians and reformers who were defining what came to be known in the 1920s as the Harlem Renaissance were often in the Bearden apartment. Romare grew up rubbing elbows with jazz greats Duke Ellington and Fats Waller (both would be among the first to buy his paintings), poet Langston Hughes, and singer and actor Paul Robeson. He also knew civil rights figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Mary McLeod Bethune, who would launch the National Council of Negro Women.


Even in relatively progressive New York City, black youngsters soon learned about the color line. Duke Ellington played at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club—with its “whites only” audiences. Paul Robeson would cause a sensation in 1943 when he played Othello on Broadway, the first black man to do so in the United States since 1865. Just before he died of bone cancer at age 76, Bearden confided a memory to his longtime friend Les Payne, a reporter for Newsday. Bearden, Payne wrote, “recalled his grade-school days in New York City when his white teacher set him and the only other black student apart from the rest of her class. She told them math was too complicated for them, and young Bearden [who would later study mathematics in college] acquiesced by drawing in class.”


In high school in Pittsburgh, where he lived with his grandmother, Bearden befriended a neighborhood boy named Eugene Bailey, who lived on the top floor of a brothel and loved making drawings of the activities he saw through cracks in the floor. His drawings depicted the brothel without a front wall—each room revealed. When Bearden’s grandmother saw Eugene’s sketches, she tore them up, marched him home and told him to pack his things and come live with her family. Eugene’s mother agreed to the plan, and Eugene became Bearden’s impromptu art teacher. Years later, one of the large paintings Bearden exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Block, showed a row of tenements, à la Eugene, laying bare the lives of its occupants.


In college, at Pennsylvania’s LincolnUniversity, he started as a math major, then transferred to BostonUniversity, where he pitched for the baseball team and began to publish cartoons and illustrations. Later, at New YorkUniversity, he studied art and education. But he always downplayed his formal art training, perhaps because his mother disapproved of painting as a career and worried that her son had his head in the stars. He got his degree in education in 1935, but was soon painting almost full time.


For the young artist, Harlem was better than Paris. “In the ’30s,” Bearden once recalled, “everyone would gather together and encourage each other. Countee Cullen [a leading poet of the day] would have a party for the artists every month or so and put up a few paintings to sell. You would only get $10, $15 or $25, but it kept up morale.” There was an open house for artists, musicians and writers at 306 West 141st Street, and Bearden showed his early work there as part of the “306 Group.”


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