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Pittsburgh Memories

Romare Howard Bearden (American, 1911–1988)

1984

Medium collage on board Measurements H: 28 5/8 x W: 23 1/2 in. (72.71 x 59.69 cm) Credit Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald R. Davenport and Mr. and Mrs. Milton A. Washington Accession Number 84.63 Location Not on View

Narrative

In Pittsburgh Memories, Romare Bearden creates a complex amalgam of 20th-century forms of expression through the medium of collage. Using hand-painted and layered paper cutouts, he recreates his grandmother's rooming house for Black steelworkers in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. Bearden lived in the house at various periods in the 1920s, and the imagery in this work is inspired by his memories filtered through a lifetime of experiences and shaped by diverse artistic influences, from 14th-century Renaissance painting to 20th-century Cubism. In the manner of early Renaissance painting, the space is not rational but magical, with the inside and outside of the house visible at once. The light in the room falls in the fractured planes typical of Cubist painting. The faces at the windows are much larger than the figures below, a scale distortion that reinforces Bearden's inventive synthesis of times, places, and events. Bearden once said that his artistic purpose was "to redefine the image of man in the terms of the Negro experience I know best," and there is in his work a sense of timeless narrative. Although the scene depicted here is clearly from memory, it is both of a particular time and quintessential, somehow forever continuing. Ralph Ellison, a renowned 20th-century writer, perceptively wrote about Bearden's work: His "mission is to bring a new visual order into the world, and through his art he seeks to reset society's clock by imposing upon it his own method of defining the times."

Artist Bio

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1914, Romare Bearden spent two or three years in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville with his maternal grandparents, who raised him from the age of seven until he rejoined his parents in New York. Bearden often returned in the summers to both Charlotte and Pittsburgh, and he lived more or less constantly in Pittsburgh's East Liberty community before graduating from Peabody High School in 1929. After then Bearden lived in Harlem except for a stint in the army and four years in Paris from 1950 to 1954.

ln the early 1940s Bearden's work reflected the Social Realist style then dominant in this country, but through most of the next decade he painted abstractly. In 1963, however, he joined Spiral, a group of artists devoted specifically to black subjects, and at about the same time he returned to figuration and took up the art of collage as his primary medium of expression. Over the next decade Bearden depicted life in the streets of Harlem in a fractured, jazzy, sometimes frenetic style that owed something to both Cubism and African art. Sometimes he turned as well to the steel mills he knew from his childhood in Pittsburgh, but his generalized treatment of these scenes was never recognizable as autobiography. In the late 1970s, however, Bearden began to focus on his own memories; as he did so his style became more direct, and he returned in part to the representational mode of his early years as an artist.