Cartoonist, soldier, social worker, philosopher, these are just a few of the titles Romare Beardon held during his lifetime. We remember him best as an artist. His art was shaped by his breadth of experiences, combined with a deep love of literature. At his core, Beardon was a storyteller who searched for the universal themes of life that are common to us all. This came through in all his projects, but especially in his collages.
Early Life shaped by the Harlem Renaissance
Romare Beardon was born in North Carolina, in 1911. At the time, there were limited opportunities available to his parents, and his family moved north to New York, in 1914. They settled in Harlem where Beardon’s father, Howard, worked as a sanitation inspector. His mother, Bessye, was the New York Editor for the weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender. Their apartment was frequently a gathering place for some of the greatest artists, activists, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. All these ideas, and jazz appealed to the young Romare. In 1925, Beardon moved to Pittsburgh to live with his grandmother. It was in Pennsylvania that he first showed an interest in art. It would take several more years until he would consider it as a career though. Even when he was not pursuing art as a profession, it was part of his life. While attending New York University, to earn a degree in education, Beardon took art classes. He also worked as a cartoonist, then as an editor for NYU’s monthly journal, “The Medley.’
After graduating from NYU, Beardon embarked on his career as an artist, but only on the weekends. He spent his days as a social worker. During the 1940s, he was considered a trailblazing modern artist. Like most military-age males,
Beardon put his day-to-day life on hold during World War II. One of his early art exhibitions took place in 1945. He created a series called “The Passion of the Christ.” He painted the series in watercolor. “Golgotha” is typical of Beardon’
use of the medium. The limited color palette and varying scale are used to express Christ’s agony, and sorrow on the cross. Beardon used black paint like a marker to outline shapes and create details.
Beardon’s most well-known works are collages. He considered the artistic process similar to creating a symphony. This was especially true with his collages. He enjoyed cutting and pasting bits and pieces from varying sources to create a new image. It was this blending of sources and ideas that were designed to make the viewer contemplate their world. Beardon’s collages were successful commercially. In 1968, Time magazine used one of them for their cover art.
Romare Beardon and the Odyssey
In the late 1970s, Beardon turned to his profound love of literature and set out to reimagine Homer’s Odyssey. He created a series of 20 collages and watercolors based on the story. The series is often referred to as “Romare Beardon’s: Black Odyssey,” because he chose to retell the work with an African American perspective. Beardon believed that “art comes from art.” Sometimes that meant he would find an idea from a literary source, other times he would find inspiration from another artist. It is in the Odyssey collages that you can see the strong influence of Henri Matisse’s colorful paper cutouts. Beardon even owned a copy of Matisse’s art book, Jaz