Romare Bearden: A Creative Mythology

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ellen C. Oppler


The Prevalence of Ritual, Black American life, Harlem Renaissance, Kootz Gallery, Abstract Expressionists

Subject Categories

History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology


Throughout his life, the American painter, Romare Bearden (b. 1914), has struggled to create a timeless and enduring body of work without relinquishing his unique individual identity. With their aesthetic philosophy summarized in the phrase, The Prevalence of Ritual, his mature collages of the past 17 years succeed in this goal. The collages are not only Bearden's private memories of the rituals of Black American life, but his successful attempt to relate those ceremonies and rites to the great archetypal themes of both Western and non-Western art. This dissertation traces Romare Bearden's quest for the mythic vision which allowed him to create a universal body of work with no loss of his individual identity.

Beginning in Chapter I with an examination of his youth, the folk traditions of his birthplace--Charlotte, North Carolina--and continuing with his experience among the recently migrated workers in Pittsburgh, where he lived briefly, and then moving to his coming of age in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance--a time of great cultural excitement for Black artists and a time when Bearden's mother, Bessye, was a central figure--the dissertation documents Bearden's active participation in the historical events of Black American life. Chapter II discusses his early years as an artist during the WPA period, including his cartoons, his political organizing among Harlem artists and his nascent aesthetics as evident in his first critical writings and his Social Realist tempera paintings on brown paper. His close ties to the Black community are reflected both in writings and his paintings.

Bearden's growing alienation from his Black community after both World War II and his mother's death marks the first abrupt stylistic and thematic shift in his art. Chapters III and IV discuss the nature of that change. Chapter III begins with a discussion of Bearden's participation in the Kootz Gallery, one of the avant-garde galleries that showed the future Abstract Expressionists. Bearden's disillusionment with the individualism of the Abstract Expressionists, as documented in his unpublished correspondence with the painters Walter Quirt and Carl Holty, foreshadows his complete dissociation from American painting.

Chapter IV discusses the oils and watercolors of this period which abandoned an ethnic content and, using a Cubist vocabulary, relied on classical Western literary texts for their context. ....


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.