Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and grew up in Pittsburg and Harlem, New York City. His parents were involved in the Harlem Renaissance and Bearden was accustomed to having artists and musicians frequent his home as a child. He brought that communal energy into his own adult lifestyle; his apartment above the Apollo Theatre was a meeting place for artists, musicians, and activists.
He graduated from New York University in 1935 with a degree in mathematics, and the next year he studied with George Grosz at the Art Students League. Funded by the G.I. Bill, Bearden also studied philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne in Paris. Bearden was sporadically employed as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Service from the late 30s to the 60s. He was also songwriter with several published works.
Bearden returned to New York in 1954 where he continued to explore visual art. He is known for modernist paintings and collages often depicting an African-American perspective on society. He integrated his passion for music into his own art weaving themes of jazz with the urban architecture. His collages capture the complexities and uniqueness of being a minority in American Society. His vision was clearly vocalized in 1969 when he said, “My intention is to reveal through pictorial complexity the life I know.”
Bearden’s use of symbolism has captured the attention of viewers for decades; trains, a common theme, denoted transport for the masses, the democratization of speed. Trains are tool for societies to communicate and evolve. Jazz shared these messages and it was not uncommon for trains and jazz to occupy the same canvas.
Color possessed a particular importance in his work; a trip to the Caribbean influenced his palette. Since he grew up in an urban area, he was deeply moved by the bright, expressive, and memorable colors of the tropics. He absorbed these colors, and projected them onto his works in the hopes that he could bring some of the experience back to the city. In short created art to enhance the lives of others.
Bearden’s work is a part of major public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. He has had retrospectives at the Mint Museum of Art (1980), the Detroit Institute of the Arts (1986), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1991). In 2003 the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., organized a major retrospective of Bearden's work that eventually traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.