John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

Romare Bearden

The Family from “An American Portrait, 1776–1976,” 1975

Romare Bearden’s print, The Family, typifies the subject matter that made him famous: the work depicts an average African American family preparing for a meal. Despite the scene’s roots in the rural black experience, the print has a universality—a mythic quality—that transcends race and social class. The inclusion of a shrouded nude woman on the left-hand side moves the image beyond genre. The black nude—an enigmatic figure based on a long line of art historical precedents—became one of Bearden’s favorite motifs. Is she an allusion to a classical Venus, a biblical Susanna, a prostitute, a conjure woman with her kettle, or a symbol of the role of the black woman as wife, mother, and lover? The figure appears in all of these guises throughout Bearden’s oeuvre, but her presence in this domestic setting suggests the final interpretation.

The print is organized along a simple horizontal axis: a wall divides the nude and the foreground figures, creating a psychological tension. The disembodied eye at the center of the table adds to the image’s aura of mystery. Based on a collage from which numerous photo-etching plates were made, the work is among the artist’s most ambitious prints, conceptually and technically. Bearden’s use of photographic snippets derived from popular magazines—like Ebony and The Saturday Evening Post—not only serve to modernize his imagery, but create a distortion of scale that adds to its surreal quality as well.  

Bearden grew up in an influential and creative African American family living in Harlem, where he was exposed to art, music, and literature—including the works of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Charles Alston—from a young age. In the early stages of his career, he studied with the German émigré George Grosz, who introduced him to social satire and a variety of printmaking techniques. Bearden also met Jacob Lawrence—an African American artist who dealt with social issues—and Stuart Davis, who urged Bearden to “paint as if he were a jazz musician.” While studying at Paris’s Sorbonne in the 1950s, Bearden encountered Constantin Brancusi, Jean Hélion, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. The Cubists’ dissolution of space and the Fauvists’ use of bright colors were particularly influential on his work.

Despite the populist, “folksy” quality of his collages, Bearden’s works display a deep level of formal and conceptual sophistication. Some works speak of social issues, others allude to religion, and still others explore ideas of culture and ritual. While he wasn’t afraid to address the specifically African American experience, he hoped to create complex works that spoke to all of society on multiple levels.

Romare Bearden, The Family

Romare Bearden
American, 1914-1988
The Family from “An American Portrait, 1776–1976,” , 1975
Color photo-etching and aquatint on paper; printed by The Printmaking Workshop, New York, and published by Transworld Art, Inc.
h. 15 x w. 20 5/16” (38.1 x 51.6 cm); sheet: h. 21 x w. 28 1/8” (53.5 x 71.4 cm)
Art © Romare Bearden/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Other Works:

Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope