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Before the Dark

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Before the Dark

Artist: Romare Bearden (American, 1911 - 1988)

Date: 1971
Medium: Collage on cardboard
Overall: 18 x 24in. (45.7 x 61cm)
Framed: 18 1/2 x 24 5/16in. (47 x 61.8cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 72.8
Label Text
Romare Bearden was a master of collage, the process of pasting different images together to create a new picture. He developed a distinct personal style, based in part on his extensive knowledge of art from numerous cultures. The figures he formed from colorful scraps of paper often resemble elegant figures from ancient Egyptian art.

In Before the Dark Bearden portrays a group of people - presumably family members - around a table. The standing woman at the center carries a bowl, while the man on the left points to where he wants her to place it. To the right, another woman sits drinking from a coffee cup. A guitar rests at their feet. The title of this collage could refer to the time of day when families have their evening meal, before the sun sets. Bearden, however, also alludes to ritualistic meals (which are often accompanied by music) and all that is suggested by "breaking bread" together - in celebration or sorrow.


Text Entries

The subject matter of Romare Bearden’s collage, Before the Dark, recurs frequently in his oeuvre. The painting is a celebration of the rituals of the Black family.(1) The members of a family are seated around a table having a meal, dinner perhaps, before the sun sets—“before the dark.” Deceptively simple in its narrative content, the scene depicts the patriarch seated at the head of the table. A woman has brought a bowl of food and is about to place it on the neatly patterned tablecloth. He imperiously points to a place for the bowl. Seated across from him is another woman, who holds a coffee cup in her hand. A guitar leans against the table. In the bottom left-hand corner, a pitcher sits on a stool. Above it, light streams in through a window.

Bearden has composed a scene of domestic clarity and order. He has depicted one of those routine, mundane rituals that gives structure to day-to-day life. As he has fashioned the scene, however, the routine, the mundane becomes charged with the mysteries of ancient rituals and ceremonies.(2) He achieves this metamorphosis by establishing a taut balance between a literal almost storybook realism and a highly formalized stylization. For example, the rendering of the face of the woman who serves is spliced; the lower half is realistic, composed of photo- graphic fragments of a Black woman’s face, whereas the top half, masked as if to conceal her identity (ethnic or otherwise), presents an aura of disguise and mystery. The faces of both the man at the left and the woman seated across from him are silhouettes, stiff and unarticulated, giving the appearance of wall paintings. The contrast between realism and stylization continues in the back- ground, which has been reduced to large rectangles of color against which the narrative details of table, chairs, guitar, and food are placed.(3) The reality of time and place is undercut by the decorativeness of the background. Even the title, Before the Dark, conveys a sense of mystery lurking behind the realism of this domestic scene. Though modest in size, this picture is a fine example of Romare Bearden’s early collages.

Born in 1914. in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bearden grew up in Harlem and Pittsburgh. After studying with George Grosz at the Art Students League, he began to paint scenes of Black life in a Social Realist style patterned after such Mexican artists as Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco.

After World War II he turned away from Social Realism and adopted an abstract figurative style, painting water-colors and oils on literary themes. His paintings became increasingly abstract in the late 1950s and early 1960s until, abruptly, at the height of the civil rights movement, he abandoned abstract art, adopted collage as his medium, and began to re-create deeply ritualistic images of his past. Since the 1960s Bearden has produced one series after another based on jazz music, the Caribbean island of St. Martin, his autobiography and the like that reflect aspects of Black life as he remembers it, or as he imagines it to have been; from Storyville in New Orleans to his Black interpretation of the Odyssey.

Before the Dark is as vital an image of American life as a painting by Edward Hopper or Robert Rauschenberg. As such, it is an important part of the canon of images of American experience.



1. For a comprehensive examination of the art and life of Romare Bearclen, see Mary Schmidt Campbell, “Romare Bearden: Towards an American Mythology“ (Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1982).

2. For an excellent explanation of the concepts of ritual in Bearden’s work, see Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden: Paintings and Projections, exhibition catalog (Albany: The University Art Gallery, State University of New York at Albany, 1968).

3. His working process is outlined in a letter to the author, September 22, 1973. Bearden included a diagram to explain the way in which he constructs his basic rectangular grid. He considered the process of construction as having several distinct phases, moving from the purely relational and schematic to the more definitely pictorial and metaphorical. See also Bearden, “Rectangular Structure in my Montage Painting,” Leonardo, vol. 2 (1969), pp. 11—19.


© Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY