In 1977, while making black-and-white photostat copies of Renaissance paintings, Romare Bearden (1911-1988) realized that most of the subjects were white. He reversed the black and white tones which darkened the color of the characters and, by doing so, added an African American voice to art history. This realization, coupled with the advancements of the Civil Rights Movement, inspired him to adopt images from the western canon of art history and replace them with elements taken from his own African American heritage.
The State Museum’s screen print, Return of Ulysses, is an excellent example of this process. Selected by Curator Amy Hammond as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, Return of Ulysses is significant because it was created by a world-renowned artist who was revolutionary in his development of a visual language that communicated his experiences living as an African American during the early to late 20th century. He incorporated memories from his early life in the American south, the fervency of the Harlem Renaissance, the advancements of the Civil Rights Movement and a lifetime of academic study.
This screen print is one of 50 in Bearden’s Black Odyssey series. Return of Ulysses was acquired in 1977 from the Brandywine Graphic Workshop. Romare Bearden’s artwork is held in numerous collections around the world, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Published around 700 BC, Homer’s The Odyssey is a tale of heroism, adventure and the quest for home. This subject matter was particularly interesting to Bearden. The scene depicted in Return of Ulysses captures Ulysses’ return after more than 10 years spent traveling home after the Trojan War. His wife Penelope was being pursued by encamped suitors. To delay their pursuit, she announced that she did not have the time to for them because she was busy weaving a shroud. She spent her days weaving and her nights undoing her work, thus prolonging the process. She is shown at the loom on the left side of the print. Several suitors are approaching her from the right. Their timing could not have been worse, because Ulysses has returned. His ship is docked in the harbor (as seen through the window at center back) and he is standing in the doorway of the room. The bow and quiver hanging on the wall behind Penelope foreshadow the upcoming archery contest and death of the suitors.
Born in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 2, 1911, Bearden’s family soon joined the Great Migration and relocated to Harlem, N.Y. His mother was the editor of the Chicago Defender and a prominent social and political figure. Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage and other artists of the time often visited the Bearden family. Bearden’s first artistic inspiration came during the 1920’s in Pittsburgh while he was living with his maternal grandparents. His friend Eugene shared sketches that he created while bedridden. Sadly, Eugene passed away while the friends were still young. Bearden memorialized him and his Pennsylvania experiences in poetry and a collage series titled Pittsburgh Memories.
Bearden’s prolific career continued in 1935 when he graduated from New York University with a degree in education. He also took night classes at the Art Student League. During the day, he worked as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services, where he remained employed until 1969. He served in the United States Army and used support from the GI Bill to travel to Paris. In 1963, he founded Spiral, a group of African American artists dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his life, he was a prolific reader and spent a considerable amount of time in self-study. He wrote articles, including “A Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting” (1969) and a book titled A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (published posthumously in 1993).
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.