Romare Bearden, a writer and artist who was praised for his renderings of African American life into oil paintings, cartoons, and collages, would have celebrated his 121st birthday on Sept. 2 if he was still alive today.
While he is no longer with us in life, his brilliant artwork has stood the test of time and then some, taking on a timeless element with a career that officially began around 1935 when he became a weekly editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper following his enrollment at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, a historically Black college, and ultimate graduation from New York University with a degree in education.
All the while, Bearden honed his artistry during his college years.
After moving to Harlem, Bearden began “his lifelong study of art,” as described by the Bearden Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded after the artist died in order to preserve his legacy while at the same time working to nurture up and coming talent.
In addition to his scholarly work, Bearden wrote song lyrics and designed album covers.
While working professionally as a social worker in New York City, Bearden worked night and weekends on his artwork, landing key exhibits that helped raise awareness of his talents around the world.
“His collages, watercolors, oils, photomontages and prints are imbued with visual metaphors from his past in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Harlem and from a variety of historical, literary and musical sources,” the Bearden Foundation website says about some of the places he lived and how they inspired him in his career.
In 1987, one year before Bearden’s death, then-President Ronald Reagan awarded him with the National Medal of Arts, which is described as “the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government.” Beginning in 1985, presidents have been giving the award to people who “…are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”
Other notable recipients of the National Medal of Arts include, but are not limited to, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Jacob Lawrence, B.B. King, James Earl Jones, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Maya Angelou and Quincy Jones, underscoring the type of talent that merits such an honor.
It’s unclear how much money Bearden’s artwork has generated in sales over time, but one of his murals, painted in the Gateway Center subway station in Pittsburgh, was once appraised at more than $15 million.
Four of his collages — “Conjunction,” “Odysseus,” “Prevalence of Ritual” and “Falling Star” — are included in the USPS “Forever” collection with a photo of him cropped to fit in the selvage.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bearden’s work, scroll down to find a small sampling of his artistic brilliance. And if you are familiar with his talents, you should still keep reading to grown reacquainted with some of his notable works. They are presented below in chronological order to display Bearden’s evolution as a master painter, collagist and quilter.
1. Golgotha (1945)
Watercolor, ink, graphite