Joining the Army in 1942, Bearden was assigned to an all black infantry division and sent to Harlem to guard New York City subways against sabotage. In 1944, the G Place Gallery in Washington, D.C. gave “Sgt. Romare Bearden” a solo show, exhibiting ten of his paintings. After Bearden’s discharge in 1945, G Place gallery owner Caresse Crosby introduced him to New York City art dealer Samuel Kootz, who invited him to show his work at Kootz’s newly opened gallery. (Other Kootz artists included Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso.) Bearden’s first one-man show there was a series of works on the theme of the Passion of Christ. It was a success, and one of the paintings, He Is Arisen, was purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Bearden considered these paintings “abstractionist,” but they were too figurative for Kootz; when he reorganized his gallery in 1948, Bearden was dropped. These were the years when America’s abstract artists were rejecting all European influence and, as Bearden put it, “push[ing] Picasso out of the picture.” Although Bearden delighted in this development, and produced some purely abstract works himself, he was ultimately drawn back to figuration.To hone his skills, he copied the works of such European giants as Duccio, Veronese, Manet and Matisse.
In 1950, he went to Paris on the G.I. Bill. He spent seven months there, haunting museums and galleries and meeting artists (Braque, Brancusi and Picasso were among those he mentioned later) while taking classes in philosophy. Perhaps overwhelmed, Bearden hardly painted in Paris or for several years after he came back to New York.
He turned instead to music, co-writing the hit song “Seabreeze,” which was recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie; it’s still considered a jazz classic. But he found life without painting stressful and depressing. In 1954, at age 42, he married Nanette Rohan, a 27-year-old dancer and fashion model. “Nanette was very particular about how she looked,” her younger sister, Sheila, recently recalled. “And then she met Romie and married, and became a bohemian!”
Their marriage lifted Bearden’s spirits, but two years later he collapsed on the street. When he woke up, in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue hospital, a doctor told him that he “blew a fuse.” He realized then, “I just had to be a painter, that was it.” Nanette nursed him back to health, and they moved from uptown Harlem downtown to Canal Street, into an apartment large enough to double as a studio. There Bearden plunged into abstraction, painting on rice paper and pasting it down in layers, tearing it, adding new layers, scratching it with sandpaper and painting on top of it. His new work caught the eye of art dealer Arne Eckstrom, who began showing it. But in 1961, after Bearden and Nanette went to Paris, Florence and Venice—a sojourn among the old masters—his love of representation revived. Caught up in the burgeoning civil rights movement, he began incorporating African-American imagery into a new kind of collage.