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). 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.
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.”