There are two African American artists that I thought I would never have the opportunity or the funds to purchase, Romare Bearden and Henry Ossawa Tanner. I still haven’t been fortunate to acquire a Tanner, but Bearden became part of the American collection in 2006. Much of Bearden’s work falls outside the American collection, because it was done after 1945 and, therefore, considered contemporary art. The organization of museum collections can seem so arbitrary to an outsider, even inside it can be confusing. The cut off of 1945 was made because that is the period when American art no longer emulated European style and ventured out on its own to develop Abstract Expressionism. I discussed this in the Delaney blog. Because of this demarcation I never thought a Bearden would become available that would fit into the American before 1945 collection.
The discovery of this painting occurred during my 2006 trip to New York for my yearly symposium on American art. I always visit the galleries to see what is available. On the wall in an American art gallery was an early Tanner that caught my eye, but it was not representative of the artist’s style and would not have been a good representation of his work. So I continued to look at the display on the rest of the wall when I was struck by the color and design of the work next to it. I wasn’t used to seeing early works by Romare Bearden, so I was surprised to learn he was the artist. The piece was stunning. I kept coming back to it during my walk through the gallery. When I returned to the IMA I couldn’t take my mind off the painting. The price was more than I had ever asked the museum to pay for an acquisition, but I thought it was so important to the collection that I had to try to acquire it for the museum.
The painting is from a series called The Passion of Christ. It is not so much a translation of a biblical text as it is a statement about the human condition, and the artist’s hope for the future of his race. He is Risen captures the spirit of resurrection, rebirth and redemption, while its vibrant colors create a celebratory mood. After serving in the Army during World War II, Bearden created this series of cubist inspired watercolors and paintings and called it The Passion of Christ. He completed 24 pieces based on the gospels of St. Matthew and Mark. Most of the series was done in watercolor. When Bearden was offered his first one-man show in New York the dealer felt the series would benefit from the addition of a few oil paintings. We don’t know how many oil paintings Bearden created in this series, but we do know there were not many. These oil paintings are unique experiments in technique and the beginning of the artist’s experimentation that would eventually lead to his later collages. Out of the 24 works in this group, 20 of them sold. One of the oil paintings was purchased by Duke Ellington. You’ve probably guessed that it was the one being offered for sale to the IMA.
The religious subject matter reflected Bearden’s interest in Albrecht Durer’s Passion series. It is very close to Durer’s 1512 engraving of the Resurrection. The similarity is remarkable considering the difference in style, but it clearly shows Bearden’s interest in this early Northern European master.
At the time of this purchase, the IMA had a new director who fortunately saw the merit in acquiring this piece. Money from four acquisition funds were required to make this purchase, but this is one painting that was worth the sacrifice. Of course, all curators feel that way about their purchases, and it would be the other curators who would have to make the sacrifice. That’s the way it works with museum purchases, especially ones with a high price tag. There is never enough funds to buy everything that the curators propose. The director, with the curator’s input, makes the final decision on what objects should be added to the collection.
The painting came to the IMA in a silver-toned frame which did nothing to bring out its vibrant color and was not the type of frame the artist would have used. The IMA conservation department researched the artist’s frames and had a similar style made for this painting, which can be seen in all its glory in the American galleries.
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