Romare Bearden, The Baptism. 1976. Silkscreen on paper.

The beginning. A celebration. A new life. The sun comes up in the wake of dawn to honor a new member of African-American life as figures, perhaps a family, wade in the bank of a shallow river. The congregation stands in it knee-deep, hardly being able to conceal their excitement towards the most prominent face in the center of them. With their hands clasped, outstretched, and reaching, they envelop our central figure, who has their fingers locked together tightly as if they were performing a prayer. The close-knit community celebrates this memoriam together and exemplifies the pleasures of humanity, something that artist Romare Bearden once felt he was lacking.  The Baptism fills in the blanks of loneliness and provides the viewer with an inside look of the gratification of togetherness.

Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina and became one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century. Having spent most of his time in Harlem, New York after his family moved there, Bearden was exposed to many artists of the Harlem Renaissance at an early-age because of his mother’s social activism. The movement became his inspiration for most of his artistic works. He began as a regimented painter, but then started to experiment with collage and printmaking. He graduated from New York University in 1935, but then served in the military until 1950. Bearden was uncomfortable with the lack of humanity that he experienced in the war, so he decided to focus on making paintings about the African-American experience.

In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Bearden had his focus on abstract painting. He incorporated many different techniques in his paintings, sometimes painting several layers onto his mediums. In the late 1960s, his fascination with collage became more eminent in his work, as he was inspired by early 20th century movements in cubism, social realism, and abstraction. Throughout his career, the importance of depicting different aspects of the African-American experience remained at the forefront of his work.

Besides his work in art, Bearden was an author of several books as well as a musician. He and his wife, Nanette Rohan, founded the Bearden Foundation to assist young artists in their endeavors. He also was a founding member of The Spiral, a Harlem-based group of African-American artists, to consider common aesthetic issues and move towards upward mobility. A year before he died, Bearden was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

This piece was gifted to the Wayne State University Art Collection by Michael Tolan in 2008.

-Written by Marissa N. Gannascoli-