In the 1930s, Bearden took classes at the Art Students League, a downtown hotbed of artistic and political ferment where Social Realism—as in the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera—was all the rage. Bearden studied there with German Expressionist George Grosz, a refugee from the Nazis. The young painter Jacob Lawrence showed Bearden his studio near the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street, and Bearden rented space in the same building. “It was eight dollars a month with electricity included,” Bearden reminisced in an interview in Art News. He had also found a job, as a New York City social worker, which he would keep for much of his life.
Grosz, whose drawings and watercolors had satirized the rise of Nazism in Germany, proved an ideal mentor. Though Bearden had been contributing political cartoons to a popular newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, the German artist taught him to think like a painter. Bearden would later write that Grosz “made me realize the artistic possibilities of American Negro subject matter . . . [he] led me to study composition, through the analysis of Brueghel and the great Dutch masters, and . . . in the process of refining my draftsmanship, initiated me into the magic world of Ingres, Dürer, Holbein and Poussin.” Bearden was so taken with 16th-century artist Pieter Brueghel that classmates nicknamed him Pete.
At the same time, Bearden was soaking up the lessons of Italian frescoes, Byzantine mosaics, African sculpture and new trends in modern art. Over a lifetime, he explored many different ways of painting, keeping elements of each as he moved through periods of Social Realism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and, finally, the exuberant collages he made his own. “Everything that I have done since [my first painting],” he wrote in a 1969 essay for the arts magazine Leonardo, “has been, in effect, an extension of my experiments with flat painting, shallow space, Byzantine stylization and African design.” Bearden’s hope, says Fine, “was that by absorbing the history of art and marrying that to African-American subject matter, he would be able to talk to everyone.”
Referring to one of Bearden’s early works, The Family (circa 1941), Fine points out that the hand gestures, emphasis on the eyes, focus on family photographs, interplay of abstraction and representation, and the inclusion of a little still life and patch of landscape are all elements that occur again and again in Bearden. “My sense of Bearden,” she says, “is that he never stopped using what he started with, in his subjects and his techniques. He keeps adding, so it gets more and more remarkable. He has given us some of the most interesting and complicated surfaces in modern art.”