“The artist has to be something like a whale swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”

Romare Bearden

Born September 2, 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden grew up in New York City and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

His father, Howard Bearden, was a pianist, and his mother, Bessye Bearden, played an active role with the New York City Board of Education, and also served as founder and president of the Colored Women’s Democratic League. Shortly after his birth his parents moved to New York as part of the Great Migration. His father worked for the sanitation department and his mother was a New York correspondent for The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Their apartment on West 131st Street in Harlem was a frequent gathering place for local intellectuals and artists, including W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Aaron Douglas, and Duke Ellington. 

Bearden attended Lincoln University, the first historically black college in the nation, and then transferred to Boston University where he played football and baseball. During this time he pursed a semi-professional baseball career, well before teams were integrated. After being pressured to pass for white, but decided to give up baseball and continue to study art. He transferred from Boston University to New York University, where he graduated in 1935 with a degree in education. 

After receiving his degree, he supported himself as a cartoonist for black newspapers and became a case worker for the New York City Department of Social Services. He worked as a case worker through the 1960s, working on his art at night and on weekends. In 1936 he joined an informal group of black artists in Harlem, and also enrolled in the Art Students League where he studied under German expressionist George Grosz, who highly influenced his work. 

During WWII Bearden enrolled in the Army, serving from 1942- 1945 in Europe. After the war he had his first one man exhibition at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery – works from his ‘Passion of Christ’ series. In 1950 he went to Europe to study art history at the Sorbonne under the G.I. Bill. He returned to New York in 1951 and abandoned painting for two years, focusing on songwriting. He composed a number of published songs, including the jazz classic “Seabreeze.”

In 1954 he married Nanette Rohan, a twenty-seven year-old choreographer and dancer, and they remained together for the rest of his life. Nanette and others encouraged him to return to art, which he did. In 1963 he was a founding member of Spiral, an association of African American artists that came together to support the civil rights movement.

Bearden was a prolific artist, and one of the most creative and original visual artists of the 20th century. He worked in many mediums, but was best known for his collages, two of which appeared on the cover of Time and Fortune magazine in 1968. His work is included in many  important collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1987 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan.

His first book, The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting, was coauthored with artist Carl Holty and released in 1969. His other publications include Six Black Masters of American Art, coauthored with Harry Henderson (1972), The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott and the Art of Romare Bearden (1983),  A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, which was coauthored with Harry Henderson and published posthumously in 1993 and  Li’l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, a children’s book published posthumously in September 2003.

Book available at Bookshop.org

He died March 12, 1988 at the age of 76. After his death, his widow Nanette Rohan Bearden established the Romare Bearden Foundation, a nonprofit that “preserves and perpetuates the legacy of this influential American artist of African-American heritage by supporting educational programs, special projects, exhibitions, critical scholarship and seminal publications that deepen appreciation of and access to Bearden’s extraordinary art and life.”

Lesson from Bearden

Bearden studied art his whole life, experimenting with different styles and mediums. He also worked collectively with other artists, forming and supporting organizations that promoted the importance of art and artists, leaving behind a legacy that not only remembers his great work, but leaves room and inspiration for future creation.

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