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Indiana University Art Museum
 

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The Family - American Portrait

Romare Bearden, The Family, from An American Portrait, 1776–1976 (1975)

Romare Bearden (1911–1988) grew up in an influential and creative African-American family living in Harlem, New York, where, from a young age, he was exposed to art, music, and literature, including the works of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Charles Alston.

In the early stages of his career, Bearden studied with the German immigrant artist George Grosz, who introduced him to social satire and a variety of printmaking techniques. Bearden also met Jacob Lawrence, an African-American artist who dealt with social issues, and Stuart Davis, a Cubist-inspired artist, who urged Bearden to "paint as if he were a jazz musician." While studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1950s, Bearden encountered the Cubist artist Georges Braque and the work of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, to name a few. The Cubists' textured collages and dissolution of space into block-like patches, as well as the Fauvists' use of bright colors and expressionistic brushwork were particularly influential to his early artistic development.

Romare Bearden's print, The Family, typifies the subject matter that made him famous: the work depicts an African-American family preparing for a meal. Despite the scene's roots in the rural black experience, the print has a universal, mythic quality that transcends race and social class. Bearden includes a shrouded nude woman, one of his favorite motifs, on the left-hand side, an enigmatic figure based on a long line of art historical precedents. Is she an allusion to a classical Venus, a biblical Susanna, a prostitute, a conjure woman with her kettle, or a composite symbol of wife, mother, and lover? The figure appears in all of these guises throughout Bearden's career, but her presence in this domestic setting suggests the final interpretation.

Based on a collage from which numerous photo-etching plates were made, the work is among the artist's most ambitious prints, conceptually and technically. Bearden's use of photographic snippets derived from popular magazines—like Ebony and The Saturday Evening Post—not only serve to modernize his imagery, but create a distortion of scale that adds to the work's surreal quality. 

Despite the populist, "folksy" tone of his collages, Bearden's works display a formal and conceptual sophistication. Some works address social issues, others allude to religion, and still others explore ideas of culture and ritual. While he was not afraid to address the specifically African-American experience, he hoped to create complex works that spoke to all of society on multiple levels.