Artist Romare Bearden’s Reckoning With the South

A new biography contextualizes the art of Romare Bearden within the politics of Reconstruction and civil rights.

Portrait of American artists Romare Bearden (left) and Raymond Saunders, 1970s. Bearden holds one of Saunders' works. (Kathy Sloane / Photo Researchers History / Getty Images)

In his monumental collage series Projections (1964), American artist Romare Bearden encapsulated a century of African-American strife. Builders, matriarchs, and blues guitarists coalesce in lyrical street scenes, juxtaposing their dilapidated homes with the sleek urban landmarks they helped construct. Bearden charted the transition from chattel to wage slavery, drawing loosely from his experience growing up in the Deep South, interviewing migrant workers, and organizing against white supremacy.

In a recent biography, Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South, historian Glenda Gilmore recounts the centrality of labor to the artist’s life story. Gilmore posits that many of Bearden’s best-known works, such as The Cotton Pickers (1941) and his dynamic Profile series, emerged not just from his working-class upbringing in North Carolina, but from his experience as a social worker in New York and as a black modernist during the civil rights era. Gilmore sets a timeline, critiques some striking artworks, and leaves the reader wondering why hardly anyone writes about art this succinctly.

Bearden (right) discussing his painting Cotton Workers with Charles H. Alston, his art teacher and cousin, in 1944. (US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

“As an artist, Bearden explored time’s circularity, revisiting, reimagining, and reinventing the past,” Gilmore writes. Working with clipped newspapers, magazines, drawings, and other detritus, Bearden redefined how the human body could look across a flat plane, designing scenes of love and solidarity that blend the spirit of Dada with the Harlem Renaissance.

Reconstruction Politics

Bearden’s great-grandfather Henry Kennedy was likely born into slavery but became a railroad worker after emancipation, eventually saving enough to open a small grocery in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bearden’s childhood was defined by financial struggles as his family tried in vain to uphold the business during segregation. They fled north just before young Romy’s fifth birthday.

Gilmore’s central thesis is that Bearden remained transfixed on the Reconstruction South throughout his career. Early on, she points to elements of Charleston’s landscapes, such as the train that ran behind Kennedy’s house in Watching the Good Trains Go By (1964), which hearkens to the freewheeling dreams of migration. As Gilmore writes, “Visual recall, a part of memory, rarely flows smoothly in the channels that words excavate.” The anonymous subjects in this “parable” thus represent the historical flight of freed slaves, created at a time when black people in America were again fighting back.

This nonlinear narrative allows Gilmore to dip back and forth across Bearden’s many stylistic shifts. The Bearden family’s migration to Pittsburgh, for example, exposed a teenage Romare to the precarious conditions men faced in an ostensibly better social environment. “These are the hard men of Pittsburgh,” Gilmore writes of his mixed-media collage, Return of the Prodigal Son (1967), which renders rusted portraits in a colorful expressionist composition.

Bearden did indeed know these men well, as he worked alongside them at steel factories and lived with them in his family’s boardinghouse. The photorealistic expression of the “Prodigal Son” in work clothes, who gazes directly at the viewer, contrasts with the more Cubist renderings of family members around him. Gilmore notes that his family church was routinely attacked by white supremacists, making this spiritualized scene feel like a negotiation of personal trauma and European modernism.

While Bearden would go on to travel the world, Gilmore claims that the South remained the central focal point of his oeuvre, as if regularly returning there in his mind. She juxtaposes his neo-Cubist piece Tomorrow I May Be Far Away (1967), which was created later in his career, with a near-identical photo of his great-grandparents. Henry and Rosa Kennedy gaze lovingly at the viewer while holding a newborn baby, possibly the artist, blurring distinctions between art and reality.

Moving to New York City advanced Bearden’s political development while introducing him to an elite class of gallerists and patrons who sought to bend black artists to their will. His mother, Bessye, had garnered a reputation as a social worker and Chicago Defender correspondent, and she brought the teenage Bearden into contact with major figures of Harlem’s burgeoning jazz scene, such as Charlie “Bird” Parker and Bessie Smith, as well as literary luminaries Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Following a brief stint as a baseball player, where he nearly landed a professional career, Bearden enrolled in the science department of New York University. Concurrently, he took up political cartooning and contributed pieces to the Crisis, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) magazine headed by Du Bois. These early works critique the American political establishment, possibly inspired by Bearden’s own experience on New York picket lines.

Upon graduation from NYU, Bearden took a job at the Baltimore African-American doing similar work, grounding his early artistic career in Depression-era struggle. In these cartoons, old and withered congressmen stand before silhouettes of lynched black men, while Ku Klux Klan members brandish Nazi patches on their shoulders. At the time, Bearden was closely following the Scottsboro Boys trial and European fascism’s steady rise. His political lens, Gilmore argues, was intended “not to reproduce Blackness but to illuminate the human condition.”

A 1941 black-and-white photograph of Bearden’s work After Church. (US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

During this time, Bearden channeled his frustrations into a manifesto in the Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity. The publication frequently criticized white patrons of black artists for enforcing imitations of classical European forms, leading prominent artists like Jacob Lawrence to join its readers. Upon reading Bearden’s screed, Lawrence reached out and helped him secure his first studio on 125th Street.

Lawrence also introduced Bearden to the Harlem Artists Guild as well as fellow painters Charles Alston and Aaron Douglas, who had successfully pressured the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ more black artists. This newfound community grounded him in a way he had never experienced. “I had no idea there were that many Black artists in the entire country. . . . Until then we had been isolated,” he said.

Falling in with painters who depicted slave uprisings and worker solidarity led Bearden to experiment with political commentary in paintings and collages. While enrolled at the Art Students League, he trained under Dadaist painter George Grosz, who fled Nazi-occupied Berlin due to his communist affiliations. Grosz further encouraged Bearden to resist the art market’s demand for neutered, apolitical art and instead paint African-American histories as he saw them. In the works that followed, Bearden brilliantly merged “Dada disgust” with social realism and the early modern woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer.

Bearden’s greatest breakthrough, Gilmore argues, came when he synthesized past, present, and future in mixed-media paintings like Three Folk Musicians (1967) and Factory Workers (1942), which introduced elements of African sculpture and Byzantine mosaic. Importantly, these technicolor portraits also brought Southern imagery and scriptural motifs to the forefront.

The artist had clearly entered a new phase, both in art and in life. Yet the memories of North Carolina still haunted him. Gilmore notes that his father Howard was persecuted for drinking at a whites-only speakeasy in 1920, but Bearden “could feel secure fifteen years later drinking, dancing (or watching the dancing), and laughing at the Savoy.”

Market Pressure

Bearden’s work with the New York Department of Social Services, in which he regularly helped migrant black workers secure employment, contrasted sharply with his art-world aspirations. Often he would paint on nights and weekends, and his exhibitions were panned by the mainstream art press for not adhering to either figuration or abstraction. His service in an all-black infantry during World War II likewise instilled an acute awareness of historical trauma, and he dealt with the fallout by trying to give gallerists what they wanted.

The war’s end, which solidified the United States’ superpower status, led to the rise of early abstract expressionism, which rejected explicit politics in favor of formal experiment. Within a few years, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko would skyrocket to market stardom for abstractions with subtle religious undertones. Bearden’s main gallerist, Samuel Kootz, pressured the artist into doing the same. In jagged works like The Passion of Christ and Golgotha (1945), he tried his hand at crucifixion scenes resembling stained glass. Rave reviews from white critics indicated their preference to see Bearden conform, yet Gilmore indicates that the stylistic shift would cause a temporary rift with his Harlem comrades for “abandoning social realism.”

At the same time, Gilmore defends a few of these works, noting that Golgotha was “as much about World War II and the Holocaust.” Gesturing to Grosz’s influence, she notes that the men at Jesus’s left bear remarkable similarity to Nazi officials in trench coats. The Mary figure in Raising Lazarus (1945), Gilmore also notes, may have been inspired by a picture of Bearden’s mother Bessye, who had passed away two years earlier. Bearden’s abstract phase may have appeared more politically neutral, Gilmore argues, yet many of the same themes were evident throughout.

This period of success and self-doubt then brought Bearden to Paris, where he took classes at the Sorbonne and rubbed elbows with Pablo Picasso. Gilmore details that many Parisians “consistently took him to be a white man” based on his light skin, and many French critics described his art as “the worst,” leading him to suffer a nervous breakdown upon his return to New York. During his hospitalization at Bellevue, he was devastated to find that a fresco he made there had been painted over.

Bearden’s relationships with white gallerists and institutions reveal racial tensions and power dynamics within the art industry, and Gilmore shows that he came out of this period assured of his mission. Along with Alston and WPA artists Hale Woodruff and Norman Lewis, he helped cofound the Spiral Group, a collective of black artists who brought civil rights struggles into white-dominated art spaces. Spiral forced a cultural reckoning around race and class divisions in the art world that mainstream critics had failed to address. Their only exhibition in 1965 brought together several postmodernist painters whom institutions are now beginning to recognize, such as Emma Amos and Richard Mayhew.

When the Spiral Group eventually split, Bearden and his partner Nanette Rohan ventured to the Caribbean island of St. Martin to escape the drama. This tropical space, Gilmore claims, brought him once again to his Southern roots. She zeroes in on The Family (1975), a kitchen scene she ties to the biblical parable of loaves and fish:

This family may not be as successful at it, but they have made a way out of no way before. The grandparents know that the fish is not about dinner, it’s about the joy of trying hard and succeeding, of simply catching the fish . . . While Bearden might have told a different story about the scene, his brilliance lies in the fact that he would not have discounted yours.

Eternal Return

Baltimore Sun critic Lincoln F. Johnson once compared Bearden’s work to that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder — whose vast landscape paintings continue to provide visual reference for early modern peasant life — but said that the former went “deeper and further, especially in his sympathy for humanity and his love for people, life, and form.” Considering Gilmore’s biography, Johnson’s compliment speaks volumes. Rather than mimic what he saw, Bearden translated class consciousness into kaleidoscopic photomontage, all while rejecting the racial stereotypes imposed on him.

Gilmore emphasizes that Bearden’s oeuvre was not strictly autobiographical. He returned to the South as a political compass. In this way, she claims, Bearden reckoned with something he could never truly reconcile. Today, his art still stands as a people’s history of Black Reconstruction, and his influence remains evident in the work of more contemporary artists like Alison Saar, Kerry James Marshall, John Baldessari, Faith Ringgold, and Martha Rosler.

Gilmore claims that Bearden’s Southern displacement echoes her own experience, making this careful study feel like a poignant dedication. By contextualizing Bearden’s art within larger critiques of a bourgeois industry, she does what all great art writing should do: re-politicize what has always been political.