This collage by Romare Bearden shows three musicians performing. Interested in jazz and the blues, music was a favorite subject for Bearden, who was occasionally employed as a composer.
Bearden collected a wide variety of images and materials for his collages. In Soul Three, the tambourine player’s dress is made of fabric and the faces of some of the figures are paper reproductions of African masks and sculptures. Bearden also resized photographs from magazines and art books for use in his collages. These materials animate the surface of Bearden’s collage of three musicians, giving it a sense of movement and rhythm.
Bearden was born in 1911 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He spent most of his life in New York where he created paintings and collages of city life and of the rural South where he was born.
Romare Bearden was born in 1911 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. When he was four, his family moved to New York, settling in Harlem where he was exposed to many important African American writers, musicians, and artists. Bearden was first taught how to draw in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he spent his summers and two years of high school.
In college, Bearden worked towards a degree in medicine from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. However, he soon shifted his focus to art, first at Boston University and finally at New York University where he earned a degree in education. Bearden also studied at the Art Students League with George Grosz, an important German artist. For two years in the mid-1930s, Bearden created weekly political cartoons for the Baltimore-based newspaper the Afro-American.
Though Bearden was successful in the local New York art scene, he was unable to support himself on his art alone until he was almost sixty years old. From the late-1930s through the 1960s, Bearden created art in the evenings after he returned from his job with the New York City Department of Social Services. In addition to creating art, Bearden composed music, collaborated on three art-historical texts, and wrote essays, book reviews, poetry, and song lyrics. Late in his life, influenced by the landscape of his home on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, Bearden painted lush beach landscapes. He died of bone cancer in 1988.
Collage Technique and Visual Influences
Soul Three, like many other works by Romare Bearden, is a collage. In this work, he combines fabric with colored paper and enlarged photographic images. Discussing his collage technique, Bearden once said, "I first put down several rectangles of color. Then I might paste a photograph, say, anything just to get me started. I try to move up and down the canvas, always moving up and across. What I'm trying to do then is establish a vertical and a horizontal control of the canvas."
The imagery in Bearden’s collages and other artwork was taken from a wide variety of sources. Often, pictures from magazines such as McCall’s, Ebony, Life, Vogue, or Harper's Bazaar were incorporated into a collage alongside photographs and reproductions of other works of art.
His works reflect different aspects of the African American experience, including images of the rural South where Bearden was born and the urban North which was his home for most of his life. In Soul Three, the scene could be Northern or Southern, rural or urban. Bearden uses cloth in the collage to reference the Southern African American quilt-making tradition. The figures’ faces in Soul Three are in part constructed from fragments of photographs of African masks and sculptures.
European art was an additional influence on Bearden. He frequently took the titles, imagery, or narratives from well-known European paintings of scenes from the Bible or from Greek and Roman myths and reconstructed them with black characters. In Soul Three, the three musicians which are the subject of the collage may refer to Picasso’s painting Three Musicians.
In addition to being an accomplished artist, Romare Bearden occasionally composed jazz music and associated with musicians such as Branford Marsalis, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller. Musical influences appear frequently in his collages in the form of musical themes and subjects. Soul Three, for instance, takes as its subject three musicians playing guitars and a tambourine. They appear to be seated in front of a house, each perched on a chair, hands poised over their instruments, ready to join in the music. The music might be for the benefit of friends and neighbors gathered around to listen, but one can also imagine that the trio is playing for their own pleasure in an improvisational jam session.
Romare Bearden used music in many ways when he created art. Sometimes he drew while listening to music. He described this experience by saying, “[o]ne of the things I did was to listen to a lot of music. I’d take a sheet of paper and just make lines while I listened to records—a kind of shorthand to pick up the rhythm and the intervals.” Bearden also advised that, in making art, you “become a blues singer—only you sing on the canvas. You improvise—you find the rhythm and catch it good, and structure as you go along—then the song is you.”
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the South became an increasingly inhospitable place for African Americans. Racism was institutionalized by the Jim Crow laws; public lynching became more commonplace; and restrictive requirements such as poll taxes effectively disenfranchised black voters. Additionally, wages remained low in much of the South, and an epidemic of boll weevils in 1898 devastated the cotton crops which were at the center of the South’s economy.
By the 1910s and 20s, rural African Americans began to migrate to the Northeast and Midwest seeking out industrial and commercial jobs in major urban centers. Jobs were often plentiful and paid well because immigration dropped off during World War I. One of the most important centers for African American urban life was Harlem, where Romare Bearden’s family moved from their home in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
During the 1920s and 1930s, as a result of The Great Migration of Southern African Americans to the North, Harlem became an important center for African American creativity and culture. Jazz musicians, poets, novelists, and artists established themselves in Harlem where a vibrant and increasingly affluent African American community existed.
Bearden’s family home in Harlem became a meeting place for figures such as the writer Langston Hughes, the musician Duke Ellington, and the painter Aaron Douglas. Much of Bearden’s work is influenced by the creative personalities which filled his house when he was a child.
1. What things repeat in this artwork? Look for colors, instruments, hands, feet, and faces. Describe patterns that you see.
2. Imagine you are listening to the musicians in this collage. What kind of music are they playing? Why might this be important to your impression of the artwork?
3. Bearden once said, “I think the artist has to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.” What does this quote mean to you? How is it reflected in Romare Bearden’s life and art?
4. What similarities do music and the visual arts share? What differences? How does Romare Bearden, in Soul Three, acknowledge the importance of both music and the visual arts?
1. Bearden often resized images from magazines and books for use in his collages. As he arranged and juxtaposed images, he made decisions about the composition and the sense of depth created on the picture plane. How does Bearden achieve a sense of depth in two-dimensional work of art? Why might depth and space be important to an artist? Study the work, then transform Bearden’s collage into a three-dimensional diorama using a shoe box, construction paper, tape, and markers. Just like Bearden did, think carefully about your compositional choices. Share your creation with classmates and compare the sense of depth experienced in your creation and in Soul Three.
2. Listen to this radio story about the importance of Romare Bearden and his art http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1428038
. Search for “Romare Bearden” in Google Images to
explore additional collages and paintings created by the artist, and select ten artworks that represent Bearden’s career. Print and arrange the images to create a timeline. Add important dates and events in Bearden’s life to the timeline, and then expand it further to include important dates in American culture and history.
3. Create a collage using materials similar to those used in Soul Three. Bearden created works about people, places, and stories familiar to him. Let your friends, places, and stories inspire your collage. Experiment with various materials, including magazines, newspapers, postcards, old photographs, gift wrap, foil, and fabric.
4. Write a poem or short story inspired by Soul Three. Consider the subject of the collage and try to make strong connections to the visual imagery with words. If it is helpful, start by brainstorming a list of words to describe the collage – you might even imagine yourself inside the world of this artwork. Include words that reflect mood, patterns, setting, and the five senses. Share your poem or story with the class, comparing interpretations of the work.
5. The Dallas Museum of Art’s collection includes many works of art that relate to music and instruments. Some of the works have religious and ceremonial connections, while others are secular. Some are two-dimensional, while others are sculptural. Explore and compare with Soul Three the following artworks: Richard Lindner’s Rock Rock, a painting of a rock and roll star; Starry Crown by John Biggers, which is named after a traditional African American spiritual; Leadbelly, a portrait of an important singer; the Senufo drum; and The Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. Write a comparative essay or creative short story, which incorporates at least two of these DMA works of art.
6. By juxtaposing traditional African imagery with a contemporary scene of African American life, Romare Bearden in Soul Three explores the multiplicity of identities assumed by black men and women in a primarily white America. The poem “A Far Cry From Africa” by the Caribbean writer Derek Walcott also explores the theme of cultural identity in a different context.
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
The Art of Romare Bearden. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2003.
The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual. New York: Abrams, 1973.
Romare Bearden in the Modernist Tradition: Essays from the Romare Bearden Foundation Symposium, Chicago, 2007. New York: Romare Bearden Foundation, 2008.
Romare Bearden: Narrations. Purchase, N.Y.: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 2002.
Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. New York: Abrams, 1990. Page 170.
Books for Students:
Bearden, Romare. Li’l Dan, The Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2003.
Coleman, Evelyn. Taylor, Dahl. Dearth, Greg. Mystery of the Dark Tower: A Bessie Mystery (American Girl History Mystery). American Girl, 2000.
Giovanni, Nikki. Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate: Looking At The Harlem Renaissance Through Poems. Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
Greenberg, Jan. Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, 2003.
Hartfield, Claire. Lagarrigue, Jerome. Me and Uncle Romie. Dial, 2002.
Haskins, Jim. Tate, Eleanora E. Cox, Clinton. Wilkinson, Brenda. Black Stars of the Harlem Renaissance. Wiley, 2002.
Moss, Lloyd and Marjorie Priceman (Illus.). Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. New York: Aladdin Publishing, 1995.
Raschka, Chris. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
Shange, Ntozake and Romare Bearden (Illus.). I Live in Music. New York: Welcome Books, 1994.
Stephens, Pamela G. McNeill, Jim. Dropping in on Romare Bearden. Crystal Productions, 2007.
Learn more about Bearden’s life, art, and legacy.
Learn about the Great Migration.
Explore Soul Three through stories and online activities.
Look, listen, and play on this interactive website about Romare Bearden and his art.
Explore Picasso’s Three Musicians on Destination Modern Art
Create your own digital collage.