Romare Bearden’s style and influences on his imagery begin in early childhood and continue throughout the Harlem Renaissance. Bearden derived his imagery from a cultural heritage rooted in Mecklenburg county North Carolina, where he was born. He moved to New York around 1914 with his parents, settling in Harlem, as part of the great African–American Migration north. He spent the rest of his life in New York, which continued to be a great source of inspiration. His imagery also reflects his extended childhood stays with his maternal grandparents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and much later in the Caribbean.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Bearden’s family home was a major meeting place for cultural figures such as writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas, and musician Duke Ellington. The words, sounds and images of such colleagues undoubtedly stimulated Bearden’s curiosity and imagination.
Jazz music was very influential on Bearden’s artwork. Jazz roots originated with blues, but deeper still gospel music. The latter two forms though they may seem somewhat more elementary to Jazz where more structured. Blues was more tailored to the Jook Joint scene, where the floors were dirt and the walls were wood or cinder block. The music spoke of was loss, or rejection by a loved one. The melodic rhythm and rhymes of this music had a pattern that resembled one making a statement twice in reference as to what occurred to him, then follow up with what he or she would ultimately do to rectify the problem, or just how bad the situation is. Gospel music on the other hand spoke of the misery of life on earth and how beautiful it will be when one gets to heaven. This music had verses and chorus. Jazz music had an improvisational approach. Improvisation was key to jazz and also primary in Bearden’s artistic process. Each mark on a work is in response to others as they are set down rather than based on a predetermined plan. Bearden’s reuse of motifs, sometimes decades apart, provides the elements of theme and variation, call and recall. The method has roots in the history of art, and it is common for artist to make copies and variations of others work, in the improvisational style of jazz musicians.
During any given working period, Bearden emphasized his favored themes, including memory and place. Mecklenburg memories dominate collages of the late 1960s. The images in “Autumn Harvest”, depicting the harvesting of strawberries is reminiscent of his childhood. The discordant colors make the eye move around the picture rapidly, yet one wants to slow down the process and observe and study the two figure’s faces, as they seem to be in deep thought. In this collage Bearden used real strawberry images, which the viewer eventually focuses on in the center. In the “Blue Morning” a mixed media piece is also reminiscent of Bearden’s childhood. He not only reveals one of his trademark hats and overalls on the figure to the right, he also shows his affection for the female human form and its beauty. The blues help the background recede, and the orange make the female body and the figure talking to her push forward.
In the 1970s Bearden frequently depicted collages of New York and Pittsburgh memories. “Showtime”, is reminiscent of the New York club scene of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. This picture resembles a semi-triangle, with the trumpets pointing upward over the female singer forming a frame for her. He chose a light colored fabric for her dress to move her out to the front of the musicians. This picture is represents the scat and improvisation that took place during that time.
The phenomenon of the Harlem Renaissance achieved unprecedented heights of creativity, producing some of America’s and most daring writers, actors, musicians, and artist. The energy and talent that spun out of the Harlem Renaissance was this diverse burst of self-expressionism introducing Black themes into American culture. Though Romare Bearden achieved international fame during and even more so after the Harlem Renaissance, he captured the essence of the period with pictures such as “Last of the Blue Devils”. The simplistic approach that was taken to create this composition takes the viewer to a time of Charlie Parker on saxophone and “Duke” Ellington on piano. The angle of the piano creates a movement toward the piano player’s hands. The saxophone then rolls off of the piano players back into the sax player’s hands. The implied line of the sax continues to the Blue devil, where his chin then points down to the piano again. The blue of the suits is representational of the cool of the improvisational sound of Jazz music.
Romare Bearden was one of America’s great artistic innovators, blazing his own trail in a time of turbulent cultural change. While his work offers an invaluable view of mid-twentieth-century African-American experience, it has also come to occupy a significant place in the wider history of American art and speaks to the universal concerns of artist everywhere.
Bearden truly came of age in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, surrounded from an early age by writers, musicians, artist, and intellectuals who presided over and extraordinary period of creative ferment. With keen aesthetic sensitivity, the insight of a philosopher, and the courage of a pioneer, Bearden absorbed images and ideas that he later wove into his colorful, complex, and imaginative art. His work is infused with the sounds, intervals and rhythms of jazz and the blues; the majesty and mystery of popular religion and obscure ritual; echoes of European old master painting and African art; and the atmosphere of the places he loved. The collage “Sheba”, is an example how Bearden used color to create continuous movement of the viewers eye. This picture is also an example of Bearden’s in depth research into African-American history, depicting an African Princes on a throne, while a servant holds an umbrella to shield her from the sun. Though the large patches of color may seem to fight against each other, they give a sense of regal ness to the composition.
Bearden believed that art had a greater function than just to be admired. His distinctive collage style combined cut out and pasted paper, scraps of photographs, burlap, wallpaper and paint glued together to make a work mean more than just the sum of its parts. He drew on influences such as Picasso, Braque and Davis, the cut-out style of Matisse, and even Chinese landscape painting.
Bearden’s studio was in the heart of on of America’s most vibrant artistic communities. He crossed paths with composers and prominent jazz and blues musicians who became his friends and muses. Considered to be the Dean of African –American artist Bearden showed how listening to jazz music helped to understand the use of space in music and he incorporated this understanding onto the canvas. He said that his work developed “out of a response and need to redefine the image of man in the terms of the Negro experience I know best. I felt that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction. What I’ve attempted to do is establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.”
His collages are filled with images of trains, cotton fields, and tenement interiors; the people in these works are present not because they are black but because they are his, the artifacts of his autobiography. Bearden said, “I now don’t ‘do’ a collage in the sense of rational, predetermined composition, I just invite some of the people I knew to come into the room and give it an ambiance”. And he knew an extraordinary range of people.