Urban Realism and the American Scene

Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
After Church, 1941
Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2

Object-Romare Bearden, After Church

A renowned African American collage artist and painter, Romare Bearden was born in the South but lived most of his life in New York City. His gouache painting After Church, completed after a lengthy visit to Georgia and his home state of North Carolina, marks the beginning of his engagement with Southern African Americans— particularly their families, faith, and livelihoods as farmers. The work depicts a small group of male congregants socializing outside a church. A man, who fills much of the picture plane, wipes perspiration from his face, while a boy stares outward toward the viewer, implying our inclusion in the scene. After Church represents a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, when abstracted figures and large swaths of color create a tension between representation and abstraction that Bearden would continue to exploit.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.


Perspective

From the start of his career, Romare Bearden’s ambition equaled his copious talent, despite the limited exhibition opportunities available to African-American artists of his generation. This is apparent in the dramatic strength that marks After Church, one of several gouaches on brown paper Bearden painted in the early 1940s, after two important events that occurred in 1940. One was the artist’s first solo exhibition, held May 4–11, at 306, an interracial gathering place for artists, writers, dancers, musicians, and other intellectuals in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. The admiration the show received must have expanded Bearden’s confidence in the power of his work. The second event was a trip during the Christmas holidays with the African American artist Charles Alston (1907–1977).I am grateful to Mary Schmidt Campbell for her June 17, 2017, email, in which she supplied the timing of Bearden’s 1940 trip South. Returning to the American South after an absence of fifteen years, Bearden stopped at his North Carolina birthplace, which he had visited often in his youth.

In his statement for the 306 show, Bearden wrote:

I believe the function of the artist is to find ways of communicating, in sensible, sensuous terms, those experiences which do not find adequate expression in the daily round of living.... Art is an expression of what people feel and want....This fact, plus horse-sense, resolves all questions as to … the role of the artist in society.... For a painting to be “good” two things are necessary: that there be a communion of belief and desire between artist and spectator; that the artist be able to see and say something that enriches the fund of communicable feeling.“Artist’s Statement” in Romare Bearden: Oils, Gouaches, Watercolors, Drawings 1937–1940 (New York: 306, 1940), [n.p.].

These words illuminate Bearden’s heroic paintings of the early 1940s, which measured as much as 48 inches tall and set out motifs he would investigate repeatedly throughout his life. Subjects feature Christian iconography, such as the Visitation and Baptism, and important community rituals such as breaking bread and praying together, as suggested by After Church. The importance of this painting to Bearden is evinced by the fact that it was on view late in 1941 at the Downtown Gallery run by Edith Halpert (1900–1970), one of New York’s most prestigious venues, in the exhibition American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries. The show opened a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when art world news was of minor consequence. Like so many shows in which Bearden participated through 1945 and beyond, it was racially segregated. (In 1945 he was invited to join Kootz Gallery but was dropped three years later and lacked gallery representation through the 1950s.)

Bearden’s art always rose above these limited circumstances. After Church reveals his broad knowledge of art history, juxtaposing as it does landscape back-grounds inspired by medieval religious paintings, the fragmented layering of cubist compositions, and the voluptuous forms of Mexican muralists. Moreover, his far-reaching intuitive talent is vividly present in the individual portraits within After Church, and in the power of each figure’s interactive gestures. These qualities, along with the artist’s distinctive palette and strong compositional structure, all contribute to the ability of After Church to enrich that “fund of communicable feeling.”Ibid.

Ruth Fine
Independent Curator, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


    Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
    After Church, 1941
    Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2

    Urban Realism and the American Scene

    William Glackens (1870–1938)
    Bal Bullier, c. 1895
    Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 32 in. (60.5 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.59
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    The Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1898–99
    Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (46.0 x 36.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.123
    Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
    Theater Scene, 1903
    Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. (32.4 x 39.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.136
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    Salem Willows, 1904
    Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 34 1/4 in. (66.7 x 87.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.120
    George Luks (1866–1933)
    Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park, c. 1918
    Oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 36 1/8 in. (76.7 x 91.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.87
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Sylvester, 1914
    Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 in. (81.2 x 66 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.2
    Rockwell Kent (1882–1971)
    Cranberrying, Monhegan, c. 1907
    Oil on canvas, 28 1/16 x 38 1/4 in. (71.3 x 97.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mr. Dan Burne Jones. Image © Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection., C1983.4
    George Bellows (1882–1925)
    The Palisades, 1909
    Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 1/8 in. (76.2 x 96.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.10
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Figure in Motion, 1913
    Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69
    Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
    Slaves, 1925
    Oil on cotton duck mounted on board, 66 7/16 x 72 3/8 in. (168.8 x 183.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2003.4
    Walter Ufer (1876–1936)
    Builders of the Desert, 1923
    Oil on canvas laid down on aluminum, 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.3 x 127.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.174
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Chicago, 1930
    Watercolor, over graphite, on cream wove watercolor paper, 13 7/8 x 20 in. (35.2 x 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 1998.4
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Pip and Flip, 1932
    Tempera on canvas mounted on canvas, 48 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (122.6 x 122.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ., 1999.96
    Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891–1981)
    Between Acts, 1935
    Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 in. (100.3 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2009.1
    Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
    Bucks County Barn, 1940
    Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (46.7 x 72.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.135
    Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
    After Church, 1941
    Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 44 1/4 in. (61.9 x 112.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Heirs of Josephine Hopper/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.77
    Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
    Bar-b-que, 1942
    Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1
    Walt Kuhn (1877–1949)
    Clown with Drum, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 60 7/8 x 41 3/8 in. (154.6 x 105.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.172
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Sierra Madre at Monterrey, 1943
    Watercolor with touches of wiping, over a charcoal underdrawing, on heavyweight textured ivory wove watercolor paper, 21 1/4 x 29 3/4 in. (54.0 x 75.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.18