According to the Tampa Museum website, “Romare Bearden establishes the important concept of family with his 1941 work entitled The Family (Tampa Museum). Over the next forty-five years Bearden returned over and over again to this significant and personal theme” (Tampa Museum). If we compare and contrast the original 1941 artwork with Bearden’s 1975 rendition of The Family, some illuminating messages, observations and symbolisms come to light. In the following analysis I will explore aspects of each artwork whose similarities and differences give the viewer a more holistic, though sometimes paradoxical or contradictive impression of the family understood by this beloved African American painter.
Let’s begin our analysis with a general interpretation of Bearden’s first the Family artwork, done in 1941 in gauche with ink and graphite on brown paper (national Gallery of Art). This portrait of an African American father, mother and child is highly stylized, incorporating unnatural tones and shades and irregular, geometric shapes to achieve its abstract feeling (and likeness to Cubism ala Picasso). Sharp lines and bold colors dominate the work. The father, for example, is portrayed in icy shades of blue, black, white and gray, as is the mother’s stern brow. This imbues their figures with a sense of hardness, reservation and cool indifference, which the sparse, modest dinner setting only seems to exemplify. These elements, however, contrast with the mother’s sheer, red dress, ruby lips and exposed breasts, which signify her fertility and passion. The innocent child, represented in pure white, serves as a symbol of love, life and unity in this otherwise distanced, cool and rather bleak portrait of the family.
One interesting aspect of The Family (1941) is its thematic design in the position of the family members. The father, seated at the table, asserts his authority and patriarchal rule by extending his arm out in front of his wife, who stands behind the man, partially concealed by him. This literal description takes on metaphoric meaning in relation to (black) women’s roles in the first half of the 20th century.
Bearden’s 1975 artwork of The Family, on the other hand, represents the family in a much different light. Almost completely opposite of the 1941 artwork’s thematic look and feel, this later rendition portrays a much more bountiful dinner scene. Unlike the earlier portrait, this collage brings father, mother and a child to the table as equal contributors in a communal setting. Everyone is literally bringing something to the dinner table, the metaphoric implications of which are obvious. The table itself is much fuller than the 1941 work, and the dominance of red, green and golden hues gives the scene of a warmer look and feeling. The subjects’ faces are softer. Interestingly though, the child is not looking toward the viewer, as her parents are compared to the 1941 work.
In stark contrast to the smooth medium used to create The Family (1941), The Family (1945) is a textured etching, the layers of which symbolize the depth of the scene as depicted almost 35 years after The Family’s original conceptual design. The warmer color schemes, gentler facial expressions, and smoother, unified lines work rhetorically to further suggest the sense of depth inherent in the latter rendition’s softened, richer, warmer family unit. Flipping from the earlier artwork to the latter, the viewer can almost see the characters and emotional value of the scene developing before their eyes, almost like a time lapse, though in Bearden’s impression, time is not the only thing that has grown.
One final note about these two works of art is the presence of passion as it is directly associated with the African American woman. In the 1941 work, the passionate woman is the mother, and although she is overshadowed by the father, her dark red, slightly agape mouth and large, exposed breasts are not only clear, but are literally front and center and form the focal point of the artwork. In the 1975 Family portrait, however, the passionate woman is a lean, nude figure pushed out into the left edge of the work. The mother in this rendition is not in the center of the scene but rather, at the opposite, far right edge of the portrait. Here, her lips are bare and closed shut in a tight little smile, and her breasts are completely concealed by her starchy white blouse and the corn husks gathered up in her arms. Upon first glance, the slender, nude woman seems not to fit anywhere within the rest of the scene. But when viewed in tandem with the woman on the opposite end of the work, it becomes apparent that for Bearden, a woman is not either a lover or a mother. She is both, and in the space or gradient between these two seemingly opposite roles, the family bond is able to manifest, develop and grow.