Bearden in Paris and his Unusual Map
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is a major figure in American art. His long career encompassed many styles of painting, but he is best known for his collages and photomontages, begun in the 1960s, that deal with African American themes yet have universal resonance. He also had many other talents and interests. In 1950, through the G.I. Bill, Bearden attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where he took Ph.D. courses in philosophy with Gaston Bachelard.
The time that Bearden spent in Paris, when he was 39 and already an artist of some reputation, was an important step in his transformation into an artist of world stature. In Paris he became friends with artists such as Brancusi and Hans Reichel and saw Giacometti and Matisse. Paris in 1950 is where and when he also met the writer Albert Murray, who would become a close friend and collaborator.
This undated hand-drawn map of historic central Paris was included in a box of drawings that Bearden donated to the Archives of American Art as part of several donations he made between 1977 and 1983. Aficionados of Bearden’s work are certain to raise an eyebrow, since he is not at all known for making maps. As far as I can tell he made only one other one, a map of the world with flowers on it titled “Flowers of the World,” a highly uncharacteristic work (included in this book). Though his map of Paris is unsigned (as are many of the sketches he donated) and the names of places and streets are not written in anything like Bearden’s distinctive handwriting, it is certainly his work. One way in which the map can clearly be identified as Bearden’s is by the wavy lines representing vegetation in his representations of the famous Paris gardens. Compare them with the cloud, crown, doorway, and tree in his “Monday Morning.” Also, note the same wavy lines forming the borders of the gardens sketched on the green overlay.
Bearden’s map is quite accurate when compared to the same section of Paris on Google Maps. It seems to be more or less to scale and includes most of the major landmarks (though it omits The Pantheon). Notre Dame is sketched in a bit of detail. The life-long New Yorker once said that Notre Dame was “built in such accord with human measure that it seemed the most immense structure on earth.”
Henry Ossawa Tanner
The most interesting features of the map (features that would not be found on most maps of Paris) are the locations of the studio and home of the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), one of the first African American artists of international reputation and a man and artist whom Bearden held in the highest esteem. Tanner’s studio is shown on the Boulevard St. Jacques and Tanner’s home is shown on the Rue Fleurus. Overlay #2, pictured here, features a path traced in red from Tanner’s studio to Academy Julien, where he studied.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh (where Bearden spent some formative years) and died in Paris, where he had lived since 1891. He suffered greatly for his art in the United States. According to Bearden and Harry Henderson, when Tanner was an art student in Philadelphia he was dragged into the street and tied to his easel by his fellow students. He found, as would many creative African Americans in the twentieth century, that France offered a better environment to live and work. Bearden’s map is a small but forceful and substantial tribute. It makes landmarks of Tanner’s home and studio, proudly situating the spaces important in the life of this great American artist alongside the most famous buildings in Paris.
Paul Devlin is a graduate student in the English department at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of the article “Albert Murray and Visual Art,” a chapter in the book Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation, published by the University of Alabama Press, June 2010.