Childhood & Early Life
Romare Howard Bearden was born on September 2, 1911, in Charlotte, North Carolina, into the educated and financially stable middle-class African-American household of Richard Howard Bearden and Bessye J. Bearden.
His grandparents owned property in Charlotte and Pittsburgh, but after the Jim Crow system was legalized in 1893, his family moved to New York City as part of the Great Migration when he was a toddler.
His grandfather and great-grandfather, who were painters, and his father, an accomplished pianist and storyteller who worked as a sanitation inspector for the New York Health Department, sparked his interest in painting and music.
His mother, a social and political activist, was the New York correspondent for the regional African-American newspaper 'Chicago Defender', as well as the first president of the Negro Women's Democratic Association.
Several prominent artists, intellectuals and activists involved in the Harlem Renaissance frequented their household, and hearing stories of working-class African-American migrants at his maternal grandmother's Pittsburgh boarding house also influenced him deeply.
After the family again relocated from Manhattan to Pittsburgh, he graduated from Peabody High School in 1929 and became interested in baseball, also briefly playing in the semiprofessional Negro leagues in Boston.
Bearden developed interest in arts in college, and shortly after enrolling into Lincoln University—the nation's first historically black college—he transferred to Boston University and became the art director of the college humor magazine 'Beanpot'.
Returning to New York City, he studied art, education, science, and mathematics at New York University, where he became a lead cartoonist and art editor for the secretive Eucleian Society journal 'The Medley'.
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After completing his studies in 1935, Romare Bearden worked as a political cartoonist for African-American newspapers like the 'Baltimore Afro-American' and studied under German artist George Grosz at the Art Students League in 1936-37.
During this time, he realized the potential of the African-American community in artistic fields and held his early exhibits of figurative paintings at the Harlem YMCA and the Harlem Art Workshop.
Romare Bearden was an early member of the Harlem Artists Guild and worked as a case worker for the Harlem office of the New York City Department of Social Services from 1935 to 1969.
Coming from a financially stable family, he did not qualify for the Works Progress Administration federal art patronage programs, and worked as a case worker throughout his career to support himself.
His career as a painter began with a solo exhibition of his paintings in Harlem in 1940, following which he continued to hold exhibitions during the early 1940s. However, he was drafted into the United States Army in 1942 and served primarily in Europe as a sergeant in the racially segregated 372nd Infantry Regiment until 1945.
On his return to America, Romare Bearden continued working for the New York City Department of Social Services, and also joined the commercial Samuel Kootz Gallery, for which he produced several expressionistic and semi-abstract paintings.
He had a one-man show at the G Place Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1944 and earned recognition for 'The Passion of Christ' series exhibited at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in NYC in 1945.
Frustrated with racism in America, Romare Bearden used his G.I. Bill funds to travel to Europe in 1950 and studied philosophy with Gaston Bachelard and art history at the Sorbonnein Paris for two years. During this time, he became close to modernist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Constantin Brâncuși, as well as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Returning to America a few years later, he shifted focus from painting to music for a brief period of time, during which he co-wrote the jazz classic 'Sea Breeze', recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie.
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While he gradually returned to painting after a careful study of Old Masters as well as influential modern artists, he was dropped by the Kootz Gallery because his work was less abstract than contemporary art.
In 1954, Romare Bearden established his studio above the Apollo Theater, and two years later, studied with a Chinese calligrapher to produce more abstract works using layered oil paint, creating muted, hidden effects.
He again started exhibitions in 1960, and the following year, joined the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery in New York City, where he would exhibit his works until his death.
Along with Charles Alston and Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden formed the African-American artists' collective called the Spiral Group in 1962 to contribute to the ongoing struggle for civil liberties.
Its first meeting, held in his Greenwich Village studio on July 5, 1963, was attended by many prominent people, including Hale Woodruff, James Yeargans, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew, and William Pritchard.
After his suggestion that the Spiral artists collaborate on a large-format collage was rejected, he began working on collages and photomontages on his own, starting in 1963. He introduced a series of collages at the 'Projections' exhibition in 1964, which became hugely successful and earned him reputation as a leading contemporary artist.
Romare Bearden would continue to work on collages and photomontages for the rest of his life, often enlarging collages through the photostat process, and began to introduce musical themes during the 1970s. Later in his life, he also designed costumes and theatrical props for his wife's dance troupe as well as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Family & Personal Life
In 1954, soon after his return to Harlem from Europe, 42-year-old Romare Bearden married 27-year-old Nanette Rohan, a dancer and choreographer who later became an artist and critic. The couple eventually set up another residence in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, the ancestral home of his wife, which influenced his later works.
His health began to deteriorate starting in 1982, but he continued to work until his death due to complications from bone cancer in a New York hospital on March 12, 1988. Two years later, The Romare Bearden Foundation was founded to preserve his legacy, and the organization recently began funding programs to support young artists and scholars.