Romare Bearden: Artist As Storyteller

Romare Bearden: Artist As Storyteller  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Life’s lessons sometimes come from the most unexpected places.  For 20th century artist Romare Bearden it was chance meeting with a prostitute on the street in Harlem.  Standing there shaking her keys and shouting out prices Romare knew immediately what her profession was. 

I think 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

She was the homeliest woman he had ever seen.  But he couldn’t stop thinking about her.  He went to his mother for help asking her to find the woman a new occupation.  She did.  As a thank you the woman cleaned Romare’s studio for him every Saturday.             

One Saturday as she was cleaning the woman noticed a huge brown sheet of paper Romare was using as canvas. 

“Is this the same brown paper I saw last week and all the weeks before?”  It was.  Romare told her he was stuck, not able to get his mind or his paint brush going. 

Why don’t you paint me she asked?

From the expression on the young artist’s face she could tell he wasn’t interested. 

“When you can look into me and find what is beautiful, you’ll be able to paint something,” she said.  It was the greatest lesson in painting Romare said he ever received. 

“I think 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 said.

Romare kept his eyes wide open as he moved in his early career from tempera to watercolor to oil.  He’s best known today for his luxuriously textured collages, a fusion of painting, magazine clippings, old paper and fabric.  Each piece has its own unique history and story.  As an artist Romare brought the past into the present with each fragment.  His work includes watercolors, oils, photomontages and prints. 

He continually experimented with new techniques.  He started working on scenes of the Great Depression, capturing the unemployed in Harlem.  As an African American he focused on his racial identity and how the richness and fullness of the Black experience could show up in his work.

“We look too much to museums,” he said.  “The sun coming up in the morning is enough.” 

Romare was born on Sept. 2, 1911 in Charlotte, N.C.  Both of his parents attended college and ultimately settled in New York City.  The Bearden home was steeped in the intellectual, artistic and political thinking of the Harlem Renaissance.  Social activism came naturally to the artist.  He was also a skilled writer.

From the mid-1930s through 1960s, Romare worked as a social worker for the New York City Department of Social Services.  That gave him time to paint at night and on weekends.  His first solo exhibition took place in Harlem in 1940. 

He died in 1988.  Today Romare is considered one the country’s leading collagists.

On Feb. 7, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, featured a selection of Romare’s work in its African American Fine Art auction.  

Romare Bearden

High Priestess; from the Obeah Series; watercolor on wove paper; signed; circa 1984; 30 inches by 20 1/4 inches;  $19,200.

Sermons: In That Number; photomontage mounted on masonite; signed and numbered; 1964; 39 ½ by 30 inches;  $28,800.

Ritual Bayou; 6 edition collages; color photo-lithograph and printed papers; mounted on plywood; 1971; each signed and numbered; each approximately 15 ½ inches by 20 inches;  $43,200.

The Stubborn Old Lady; collage of various paper and mixed media; mounted on masonite; signed; 1971; 20 inches by 13 inches;  $72,000.

Tidings; collage of various paper and mixed media; mounted on masonite; signed; circa 1973; 17 inches by 16 inches;  $96,000.             

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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