NEW YORK — Lively and spontaneous scenes from the Harlem diaspora as well as depictions of the Black experience helped Romare Bearden (1911-1988) shift from being just a talented painter to one who broke through racial barriers. Making a statement on Black American culture, Bearden created powerful paintings and collages to take his rightful place among the best of the American modernists, most of whom were white. Using his own memories, literature, popular magazines, and African American history, his artworks told African American stories in a way that made them universal.
“Romare Bearden is a seminal figure in [modern] American art. His subjects and choices of media were innovative and influential. His style was iconic: one can look at a work by Romare Bearden from across a large room and know instantly who the artist is,” said Thom Pegg, owner and senior specialist at Black Art Auction in St., Louis, Missouri. “There is something about being in the same room as a work by Romare Bearden. It is so inspirational and powerful.”
Holding the highest price achieved on the LiveAuctioneers platform for his works is Musicians, a circa-1980 paper collage on Masonite that achieved $520,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at Black Art Auction. “The size, medium, and subject matter are all the best of the best. It is a major example of his work in collage of an important subject to him personally and also to African American art in general,” Pegg said of Musicians. “The connection between music and Black culture, and ultimately Black art, is crucial.”
Some of Bearden’s paintings have sold for five and six figures, with the record price held by his painting The Street, which commanded $1.1 million at Sotheby’s in November 2021. Pegg said his work is accessible to collectors of all means, but advised that beginners should probably start by looking at his multiples instead of his original paintings or collages: “Bearden prints are very worthwhile and a good starting point. He was a talented printmaker, his prints are indicative of his style and imagery, and he considered it an important part of his artistic output.”
Echoing his comments, Georgina C. Winthrop, president and fine art director at Grogan & Company in Boston, Massachusetts, said “Bearden’s prints are an excellent entry point into his market. They are a more accessible price point than his collages, yet they have all the hallmarks of his style — complex themes, expressive figures, bright colors, and varied textures. Bearden also often painted watercolor designs in the margins of his prints, giving a personal, handmade touch to many of them.”
Sophisticated collectors gravitate towards Bearden’s work in collage, which “marries the contradictory forces of improvisation and repetition, similarly to jazz music,” according to Pegg, who adds, “The creation of a collage is mostly spontaneous, yet the foundations of the composition are repetitive. The repetition of lines and angles of an image create a visual movement, but simultaneously develops a balanced composition. The cut-out materials used to build that structure on the surface might be similar or very different, but even contrasting elements, joined together, create cohesion — a melody of chaos.”
Bearden was highly innovative in his collages, which typically bring mid-five figure prices. For example, his 1972 work Inscriptions At The City Of Brass sold for $355,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at La Parisienne Des Arts.
Besides music, the serenity of gardens was a frequent theme in his collages. One of his 1972 collages, Girl in a Garden, made $150,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Swann Auction Galleries. “Girl in a Garden is an exquisitely layered example of Romare Bearden’s mid-career collage” and features “a now familiar Bearden photo montage of African masks, in contrast with the textures and color of the rest of the composition,” according to the auctioneer’s catalog description.
Another garden-themed work that performed well was In the Garden, a 1978 acrylic, cloth, and paper collage on board that sold above its $40,000-$60,000 estimate at $75,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Grogan & Company. “Despite its small scale, this work had all the elements that collectors look for in a Bearden work,” Winthrop said. “The collage elements, comprised of textured and patterned fabrics and papers, together with the bright delineation of the foreground and background, led the viewer’s eye toward the figures in the mid-ground, the gestures of their hands and the expressive intensity of their eyes highlighting the moment of connection that the painting captured.”
Bearden often painted from memory, revisiting scenes from his childhood as in the intimate Pittsburgh, a 1978 watercolor and collage that brought $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Black Art Auction. As a teenager, Bearden spent summers in Pittsburgh, staying with his grandmother in the city’s East End and deciding to remain with her to complete his final year in high school at local Peabody High School in 1929. While there, Bearden learned to draw from a friend named Eugene, who used his talent to create images of the brothel where he lived with his mother.
“When Romare’s grandmother learned of his friend’s circumstances, she brought the boy to live with them at the boarding house,” Pegg said. “Sadly, Eugene died a year later, but the experience was significant to Bearden, and he revisited his time in Pittsburgh as subject matter even much later in his career.” Bearden executed a ceramic tile mural for the city’s transit system in 1984, titled Pittsburgh Recollections, and a collage, Pittsburgh Memories, the same year. This collage is likely a scene from his grandparent’s boarding house, with the city and its steel mills visible outside the window, Pegg explained.
Likely another memory painting is Bearden’s enigmatic Sunset (Mysterious Woman), a 1981 mixed media and collage work that brought $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Freeman’s.
The auction market continues to strengthen Bearden’s status as a blue-chip artist. “The price trajectory for his work might [now] be more gradual than the overnight success of a newly discovered trendy artist’s, but it is too important to ever go down, and the confidence level for investing in it is high,” Pegg said. “It really no longer matters how high the price is, because it is self-fulfilling — if the next major Bearden brings $3 million at auction, it doesn’t mean someone overpaid — it means that’s what they are worth now.”
“Given Bearden’s importance, compared to a comparable work by an equally important white artist, they are still reasonable,” he said. “I like to say, ‘It’s not surprising that the prices of quality African American art have risen so quickly recently — it’s that they were so undervalued for so long’.”