Before Romare Bearden turned to the medium of collage in 1964—the multilayered compositions, for which he is best known—he was steeped in the language of drawing and painting. The Visitation (1941) (now on view in the exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North) exemplifies a critical early moment in the development of an artist who would become a leading voice in the cultural life of Harlem and in the history of American art. Recently acquired by MoMA, The Visitation returns to the Museum’s galleries for the first time since the 1971 retrospective Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual. The work is part of a body of large-scale gouache paintings on brown paper that the artist created between 1940 and 1942 in his Harlem studio, following a trip to visit relatives in North Carolina. Bearden was born in the South, but his family joined the Great Migration, moving to New York City around 1915; his deep connection to the South always remained, fueled by occasional trips that inspired what he called “Southern themes” in his works.
1941 was a pivotal year in Bearden’s development, and his gouaches from that moment reflect a new direction—one toward greater abstraction, experimentation, and new subjects. In The Visitation Bearden experimented with broad swaths of red, brown, green, and blue and their relationship to the brown paper support, demonstrating a fascination with tactility and materials that would continue to inform his art. Space is foreshortened and tightly cropped at the top and bottom, bringing the figures directly into the viewer’s space and presaging the immediacy of his later work in collage.
An ardent student of art, Bearden studied in New York City, Boston, and near Philadelphia, and frequently visited New York’s museums and galleries, as well as the New York Public Library. These encounters generated a variety of stimuli that inform The Visitation. The masklike faces of Bearden’s women speak to the role of what he called “the expressive forms” of African sculptures and masks, which he had seen in MoMA’s 1935 exhibition African Negro Art, which displayed African sculptures as works of art rather than ethnographic objects. In depicting the experience of black Americans in rural and urban settings, Bearden also responded to the socially engaged, monumental paintings of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, whose works entered MoMA’s collection and were shown in the 1930s. Pablo Picasso’s politically charged painting Guernica (1937), which was shown at MoMA in 1939–40, was also an influence, as was Picasso’s connection to African art. The heavy, classicizing drapery and oversized hands and bodies of the figures in The Visitation resonate with Picasso’s broad neoclassical women and the exaggerated figuration of the Mexican muralists.
Christian iconography also played a role throughout Bearden’s art, especially when he dealt with themes of suffering and redemption. The Visitation is a biblical subject that has captivated artists for centuries, as seen in such works as Rogier van der Weyden’s Visitation (c. 1435/40), which depicts the moment when the Virgin Mary, pregnant with Christ, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with St. John the Baptist. The encounter brings divine grace to both Elizabeth and her unborn child; Bearden’s interpretation is multivalent and infused with spirituality.
Even after Bearden developed his signature style of collage in the 1960s, The Visitation continued to be generative for the artist. He revisited the composition multiple times, including in the artist’s only known self-portrait, Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Artist with Painting and Model (1981). In this collage, Bearden places The Visitation on an easel in his studio flanked by a model and the artist holding a paint brush. In addition to its importance within the artist’s oeuvre, The Visitation relates to the socially conscious realism of Bearden’s contemporary Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917−2000). Like Bearden, Lawrence came of age just after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and grew up within a lively intellectual and artistic milieu. Friends and studio neighbors on 125th Street, Bearden and Lawrence both pursued social and cultural subjects in ways that reimagined the conventions of history painting for the modern era. The same year Bearden painted The Visitation, Lawrence completed a defining series of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration—the multi-decade mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that ultimately transformed the nation’s social composition. Currently on view on MoMA’s third floor, Lawrence’s series is contextualized by an inspiring and poignant selection of novels and poems, music, video, photographs, and paintings by the great chroniclers of black life in America—from Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday to Gordon Parks, Charles White, and, of course, Romare Bearden.