Art Inspires Art: Romare Bearden
By Ishaar Gupta, Education Apprentice
“I got the idea from a Bearden painting called ‘The Piano Lesson.’ It’s of a little girl at the piano with her piano teacher standing over her. And in my mind I saw Maretha and Berniece” - August Wilson
In 1987, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, a painting by artist Romare Bearden came to life in the form of August Wilson’s acclaimed play, The Piano Lesson. Wilson saw the painting (and all of Bearden’s art) as “black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence.”
In the years of the Great Migration (1910-1970) - when six million African-Americans moved from the rural south to the urban north - many felt a sense of cultural detachment. The residual effects from the horrors of slavery were still very prominent, making the creation of family legacy difficult. Bearden aimed to chronicle these experiences of troubled legacy through his art. Bearden, one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, has been credited with displaying a deep engagement with the African-American community. Likewise, Wilson, who played a similar role in the rise of black theatre, asks his audience “What do you do with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use?” In a play named after and inspired by a collage by Bearden, his characters face many issues of historical legacy and memory and as a result, the two share much more in common than a title.
Romare Howard Bearden (1911-1988), who grew up during the Great Migration, began his career depicting scenes of the American South, later focusing on unity within the African-American community. During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Bearden experimented with new ideas, leading to more abstract works. The Piano Lesson’s use of patterns, explorations of interior space, and subject matter recalls the 1916 painting of the same name by Henry Matisse. Bearden drew inspiration from Matisse during this time period. Originally intended to be a poster for a dance and musical collaboration between Bearden’s wife Nanette and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, the scene portrays a teacher standing over her student who sits at the piano.
When Wilson saw the painting, he began to see Maretha and Berniece, sitting at the piano that would become the symbol of legacy in the Charles family. Wilson already had much in common with Bearden; although Wilson and Bearden grew up decades apart, both grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and both drew inspiration for their work from the Twentieth Century African-American experience.
In many ways, Wilson’s play and Bearden’s painting accomplish similar goals in portraying African-American life. Both found solace in using the abstract to express the feelings of African-Americans in post-slavery America. Their work discussed the importance of legacy, while also honoring the troubles of recognizing the past. Both used their art to represent the issues with legacy many African-Americans faced during this time period.