Depicting the aspects of American black culture through autobiographical and metaphorical collages that integrate the images of African-American life in the urban and rural South with references to popular culture, religion, Classical art and myth, the African-American artist, Romare Howard Bearden, is celebrated as one of the most important and inventive American artists of the 20th century.
Revered as America’s foremost collagist, Bearden was born on September 2, 1911, in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a toddler, he moved with his family to Harlem in 1914. After graduating high school from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he began college at Lincoln University and later transferred to Boston University. Graduating with a degree in science and education, he completed his studies at New York University in 1935.
From 1935 to 1937, Bearden was employed as a cartoonist for the Baltimore Publication “Afro-American”, but for most of his life he worked as a social worker in New York, making art in his free time. After military service during World War II, he lived in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne in 1950. Afterwards he extensively travelled in Europe and developed his mature semi-abstract collage style.
Rooted in Afro-American culture, the narrative structure of Bearden's art is simple and archetypal; ritual, music and family are his pervasive themes. His works' complexity lies in their poetic abstraction, in which layered fragments of color and pattern evoke the rhythms, textures and mysteries of people's experience.
Bearden sought to give the African-American experience a universal, monumental and Classical representation by recasting Classical events with African-American subjects, as in “The Return of Odysseus (Homage to Pintoricchio and Benin) (1977). By rendering Odysseus and Penelope as African-Americans, he drew the political injustices of his time into a universal, allegorical context.
Bearden first achieved recognition in the mid-1940s, and by the 1960s he had come to be regarded as the preeminent collagist in the U.S. He was a founding member of the Harlem Culture Council and Black Academy of Arts, and was later elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972. He received the Mayor's Award of Honor for Art and Culture in New York in 1984 and the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Ronald Reagan, in 1987.
Bearden also was a song writer and book illustrator, and he occasionally designed sets for the Alvin Ailey, an American Dance Company. In 1990 the Romare Bearden Foundation was established to promote his work and to support African- American artists.
At the age of 76, Bearden died on March 12, 1988, in New York City, NY. His work is collected in several major American institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.