5 Iconic Romare Bearden Artworks That Capture 20th Century Black American Life

 

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Painter and collage artist Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, into a college-educated, middle-class family. When he was three years old, his family moved from the rural south to New York City, where grew up in Harlem’s Black community during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. This period saw the cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, and literature, allowing Black people to celebrate their identity with pride. Many people experienced the freedom of expression for the first time, and Bearden devoted his life to encouraging other Black artists to document their heritage through art. Despite his pale skin, he was African American, and once described his work as, “the image of man in terms of the Negro experience I know best.”

Bearden began his career as a social realist painter during the 1930s and 1940s and then experimented in a style borrowed from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. The artist ultimately found his distinct voice in collages he made from 1964 until his death in 1988. Inspired by the rhythms of jazz and vibrant city life, he assembled magazine clippings and painted paper into dynamic compositions that captured Black American culture.

Read on to discover five of Bearden’s most famous works.

Here are five iconic Romare Bearden artworks that capture Black American life during the 20th century.

 

Factory Workers, 1942

 

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Before he created the colorful, abstract collages he became best known for, Bearden produced paintings. In the early 1940s, the artist rendered social-realist scenes of working-class Black Americans in the South using gouache. In this painting, a group of men gathers outside a factory, which is depicted in the upper right on the canvas. Despite the painting’s title, the men’s clothes do not suggest that they are factory workers. Instead, their suits suggest that they are seeking work and may have just been denied employment. Fortune Magazine selected this painting to illustrate an article entitled The Negro's War, which examined the social and financial costs of racial discrimination during World War II.

 

Three Folk Musicians, 1967

 

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In 1963, when Bearden was in his early 50s, he began creating collages and photomontages. These cut-and-stick techniques allowed him to express his life experiences more fully into his art. One of his most celebrated and recognizable works, Three Folk Musicians, was presented in the Museum of Modern Art’s successful 1971 exhibition Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual.

The collage depicts two guitar players and a single banjo player, and the group is likely playing folk or blues music. The large-scale work combines layers of hand-painted papers and photographs from magazines. Since Bearden incorporated scraps of paper from previous works, the composition is both a historical narrative on African-American culture and a kind of autobiographical art piece.

 

Summertime, 1967

In Summertime, Bearden depicts a woman eating ice cream outside a store while a man sits on a chair and two oversized faces peer out from behind window shades. Using images from newspapers and magazines—along with pieces of flat-colored paper in blue, pink, and brown—Bearden captures a crowded inner-city during a hot summer day. Although the theme of the piece seems pleasant, it also implies a sense of caution and racial tension. The half-covered faces in the windows appear to carefully survey the scene. During the time the piece was created, race riots swept through cities in the U.S. during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.” The Newark riot was one of 159. Over four days (between July 12 and July 17), 26 people died and hundreds were injured.

 

The Train, 1975

 

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In the late 1960s, Bearden—under the encouragement of printmaker and good friend Robert Blackburn—began experimenting with printmaking. With The Train, Bearden used a combination of etching, photoengraving, and screen printing to re-create the appearance of a jigsaw-style collage. The Train features abstract faces made of pasted photographs of women and of African sculpture, next to textures, and colorful areas of vibrant ink.

The artwork explores themes of migration and segregation within the African American experience. When speaking about this piece, Bearden said that “trains could take you away and could also bring you to where you were. And in the little towns it's the Black people who live near the trains.” Trains were central to the lives of enslaved African-Americans. The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes that helped enslaved people escape to the northern U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean.

 

The Piano Lesson, 1983

 

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The Piano Lesson is one of a series of artworks inspired by Bearden's earliest memories of North Carolina. In it, the artist depicts a piano teacher and her student in a colorful Southern parlor. Bearden dedicated this image to legendary jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who, like Bearden, moved as a child from the South to the North (in her case, Pittsburgh). The artwork was inspired by two Henri Matisse paintings, The Piano Lesson (1916) and The Music Lesson (1917).

Romare Bearden Foundation: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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Emma Taggart

Emma Taggart is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. Originally from Northern Ireland, she is an artist now based in Berlin. After graduating with a BA in Fashion and Textile Design in 2013, Emma decided to combine her love of art with her passion for writing. Emma has contributed to various art and culture publications, with an aim to promote and share the work of inspiring modern creatives. While she writes every day, she’s also devoted to her own creative outlet—Emma hand-draws illustrations and is currently learning 2D animation.
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