Romare Bearden papers, 1937-1982

A Finding Aid to the Romare Bearden Papers, 1937-1982, in the Archives of American Art, by Barbara Aikens

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Funding for the digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art

Table of Contents:



Biographical Information

Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1914, Bearden's family relocated to New York City when Bearden was a toddler. Living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Bearden was exposed to such luminaries as writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas, and musician Duke Ellington. While attending New York University, Bearden became interested in cartooning and became the art editor of the NYU Medley in his senior year. He received his B.S. in mathematics in 1935, initially planning to pursue medical school. Realizing that he had little interest in the other sciences however, Bearden began attending classes at the Art Students League in the evenings, studying under George Grosz.

In the mid-1930s Bearden published numerous political cartoons in journals and newspapers, including the Afro-American, but by the end of the decade, he shifted his emphasis to painting. Bearden's first paintings, on large sheets of brown paper, recalled his early memories of the South. After serving in the Army, Bearden began exhibiting more frequently, particularly in Washington, D.C. at the G Street Gallery and in New York with Samuel Kootz.

During a career lasting almost half a century, Bearden produced approximately two thousand works. Although best known for the collages of urban and southern scenes that he first experimented with in the mid-1960s, Bearden also completed paintings, drawings, monotypes, edition prints, public murals, record album jackets, magazine and book illustrations, and costume and set designs for theater and ballet. His work focused on religious subjects, African-American culture, jazz clubs and brothels, and history and literature. Not confining his abilities to the visual arts, Bearden also devoted attention to writing and song writing. Several of his collaborations were published as sheet music, among the most famous of which is "Seabreeze," recorded by Billy Eckstine. In addition, Bearden coauthored three full-length books: The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting (1969) with painter Carl Holty; Six Black Masters of American Art (1972); and A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (posthumously, 1993), the latter two with journalist Harry Henderson.

Bearden was also active in the African-American arts movement of the period, serving as art director of the Harlem Cultural Council, a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and organizer of exhibitions, such as the Metropolitan Museum's "Harlem on My Mind" (1968). Romare Bearden died in 1988.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The papers of Romare Bearden measure two linear feet and date from 1937 to 1982. The collection includes biographical information, correspondence, writings by and about Bearden, miscellaneous legal and financial material, photographs, drawings, and printed material.

Correspondence is with family, friends, artists, galleries, museums, publishers, universities, arts associations, and colleagues, primarily concerning gallery space, exhibitions, sales of artwork, publishing, and arts events. Also found are numerous letters referring to African-American art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including exhibitions, publications, associations, and scattered letters of a more personal nature. Many of the letters are illustrated with Bearden's doodlings and drawings. Although most of the letters are from galleries, museums, publishers, and arts associations, scattered letters from Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, Ad Reinhardt, Carl Holty, and Sam Middleton are found. In addition, there are letters from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and letters concerning its founding.

Writings by Bearden include lectures, speeches, talks, essays, and prose. Many are handwritten, annotated, and edited in Bearden's hand and several are illustrated with Bearden's doodlings and sketches. Included are a memorial delivered upon artist Carl Holty's death, a tribute to Zell Ingram, autobiographical essays, essays on art, and African-American art, artists, and cultural life. Also found are several handwritten examples of Bearden's prose and poetry. There are also writings by others and one folder of fragments and notes assumed to be by Bearden.

The collection houses two folders of photographs and snapshots of Bearden, family members, other unidentified artists or friends, classes and/or lectures, and works of art. Also found are several undated ink drawings, sketches in pencil and ink, and a hand-drawn and colored map with overlay of Paris. Printed material includes examples of Bearden's commissioned artwork for publications, press releases, exhibition catalogs and announcements, invitations, newspaper and magazine clippings, and miscellaneous printed materials. Although much of the printed material concerns Bearden's work, a fair portion concerns African-American art, artists, and cultural movements.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into seven series based on type of materials. Documents within each of the seven series have been arranged in chronological order, except for the writings which have been further subdivided by creator and are undated. Printed materials have been arranged primarily according to form of material and are in rough chronological order.

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms. People, families and organizations are listed under "Subjects" when they are the topic of collection contents and under "Names" when they are creators or contributors.

Subjects-Topical:

  • African American painters -- New York (State) -- New York
  • African American Artists
  • Painting
  • Painters -- New York (State) -- New York

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs
  • Drawings
  • Exhibition catalogs
  • Works of art
  • Maps -- Paris (France)
  • Sketches

Names:

  • Alston, Charles Henry, 1907-1977
  • Reinhardt, Ad, 1913-1967
  • Holty, Carl, 1900-1973
  • Lawrence, Jacob, 1917-
  • Middleton, Samuel M., 1927-

Provenance

Romare Bearden donated his papers in several increments between 1977 and 1983. In 1968, Bearden also loaned letters, a scrapbook, photographs, printed materials, and writings that were microfilmed and returned to Bearden. He later donated some of this same material to AAA.

Separated and Related Materials

In 1968 Romare Bearden loaned a scrapbook, photographs, catalogs, clippings, and writings for microfilming on reels N/68-87. These materials are not described in this finding aid.

Within the Archives holdings are two oral history interviews with Romare Bearden. One was conducted in 1968 by Henri Ghent and another in 1980 by Avis Berman. Both have been transcribed and the 1968 interview transcript is available on the Archives website and on microfilm.

How the Collection was Processed

All accessions were merged and fully processed, arranged, and described in 2003 by Barbara Aikens. A portion of an earlier loan that was microfilmed on reel N/68-87 was merged and processed with the later accessions.


How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The bulk of the collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website. Use of material not digitized requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The Romare Bearden papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2005 and is available online via AAA's website..

How to Cite this Collection

Romare Bearden papers, 1937-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical, 1977, undated
(Box 1; 1 folder)

One folder of miscellaneous biographical information that includes awards, certificates, family history, resumes, and other miscellaneous documents.

Box Folder
1 1 Miscellaneous Biographical Information, 1977, undated

Series 2: Correspondence, 1944-1981
(Boxes 1-2; 0.8 linear feet)

Letters to and from Bearden with family, friends, artists, galleries, museums, publishers, universities, arts associations, and colleagues primarily concerning gallery space, exhibitions, sales of artwork, publishing, and arts events. Also found are numerous letters referring to African-American art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including exhibitions, publications, and associations, and scattered letters of a more personal nature. Many of the letters are illustrated with Bearden's doodlings and drawings. Although most of the letters are from galleries, museums, publishers, and arts associations, scattered letters from Charles Alston, Ad Reinhardt, Carl Holty, and Sam Middleton are found, as well as a 1946 letter from Samuel Kootz Gallery agreeing to be the sole representative of Bearden for a two year period. There are a few letters from Jacob Lawrence, including a 1971 letter stating that Bearden's exhibition brings "back memories of 33 West 125th Street....which as is so offtimes true - turn out to be times we treasure greatly". Lawrence is referring to a studio building on West 125th where Bearden also had a studio in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In addition, there are letters from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and letters concerning its founding. There is also a 1970 Guggenheim award letter for a fellowship to develop and write "A History of Afro-American Artists".

Box Folder
1 2 Correspondence, undated
1 3-21 Correspondence, 1944-September, 1972
(19 folders)
Box Folder
2 1-18 Correspondence, October, 1972-1981
(18 folders)

Series 3: Writings By and About Bearden, circa 1950s-1980s
(Box 3; 6 folders)

This series houses writings, primarily in draft or manuscript version, by Bearden, such as lectures, speeches, talks, essays, and prose. Many are handwritten, annotated, and edited in Bearden's hand and several are illustrated with Bearden's doodlings and sketches. Included are a memorial delivered upon artist Carl Holty's death, a tribute to Zell Ingram, autobiographical essays, essays on art, and African-American art, artists, and cultural life. Also found are several handwritten examples of Bearden's prose and poetry. One folder of writings by others includes an interview transcript edited by Bearden, a student paper, numerous essays about Bearden and his work, and one proposal for a film based on Bearden's life. One folder of fragments and notes assumed to be by Bearden is also found and one folder of unidentified writings.

Box Folder
3 1-2 Writings By Bearden, circa 1950s-1980s
(2 folders)
3 3 Writings By Bearden, Prose and Poetry, circa 1950s-1980s
3 4 Miscellaneous Notes, circa 1950s-1980s
3 5 Writings About Bearden By Others, circa 1950s-1980s
3 6 Unidentified Writings, undated

Series 4: Legal and Financial Material, 1970-1977
(Box 3; 3 folders)

Scattered legal and financial material, including a 1977 agreement with Warner Brothers Records, Inc. for artwork for a Charlie Parker album cover. Also found are miscellaneous financial receipts, invoices, and statements for sales and purchases of artwork, as well as loan and exhibition documentation. Scattered household receipts are also arranged in this series.

Box Folder
3 7 Legal Agreements, 1975, 1977
3 8 Miscellaneous Financial, Art-Related, 1970-1977
3 9 Miscellaneous Financial, Non Art-Related, 1974-1975

Series 5: Photographs, undated
(Box 3; 2 folders)

Two folders containing scattered photographs and snapshots of Bearden, family members, other unidentified artists or friends, classes and/or lectures, and works of art.

Box Folder
3 10 Photographs of Bearden, Family, Other Artists, undated
3 11 Photographs of Works of Art, undated

Series 6: Drawings, undated
(Box 3, 6; 4 folders)

Undated ink drawings, sketches in pencil and ink, and a hand-drawn and colored map with overlay of Paris.

Box Folder
3 12 Ink Drawings, undated
3 13 Pencil and Ink Sketches, undated
(See also Box 6)
3 14 Hand-drawn Map of Paris with Overlay, undated
Box
6 Oversized Sketch, undated
(See Box 3, F13)

Series 7: Printed Material, 1937-1982
(Box 3-5; 1 linear foot)

Printed material includes printed examples of Bearden's commissioned artwork for publications, press releases, exhibition catalogs and announcements, invitations, newspaper and magazine clippings, and miscellaneous printed materials, such as magazines and bulletins. Also found is one folder of printed material concerning the 1973 Annual Conference of Artists and another folder housing materials concerning other artists. Although much of the printed material concerns Bearden's work, a fair portion concerns African-American art, artists, and cultural movements.

Box Folder
3 15 Examples of Artwork for Publications, circa 1970s
3 16 Press Releases, 1971-1979, undated
3 17 Catalogs, 1948-1971
Box Folder
4 1-4 Catalogs (mostly Bearden), 1972-1982
(4 folders)
4 5 Announcements, 1964-1982, undated
4 6 Invitations, 1972-1975, undated
4 7-8 Newspaper Clippings, 1937-1969
(2 folders; partially scanned)
Box Folder
5 1-6 Newspaper Clippings, 1970-1982, undated
(6 folders; partially scanned)
5 7 Magazine Clippings, 1933-1980, undated
(Partially scanned)
5 8 Magazines, 1967-1969
(Not scanned)
5 9-12 Miscellaneous Printed Material, undated
(4 folders; partially scanned)
5 13 National Conference of Artists, 1972-1973
5 14 Information on Other Artists, undated
(Partially scanned)