Romare Bearden’s Letters to Art Historian Harry B. Henderson, Jr.

Swann’s May 7, 2020 sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana includes a remarkable archive of letters, postcards and greeting cards from Romare Bearden to his longtime friend and collaborator Harry Henderson. Taken as a whole, the archive offers rare insight into the vision of an important American artist, and also sheds light on his collaboration with Henderson, with whom he wrote two important books: Six Black Masters of American Art, 1972, and A History of African American Artists, completed after Bearden’s death in 1993. The archive spans decades of their friendship, with material from 1949 to 1987.

 
An archive of letters, postcards and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden to Harry Henderson, watercolor greeting card from the archive, 1949-87.
An archive of letters, postcards and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden to Harry Henderson, watercolor greeting card from the archive, 1949-87. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500. To be offered in our May 7, 2020 Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction.
 

Harry Henderson was an editor and journalist from Croton-on-Hudson, New York. The 2005 sale of his art collection, following his death in 2003, was a watershed moment in the history of the auction market for work by African-American artists. Below, we excerpt portions of the letters to Henderson, and also provide some background on the circumstances that led to Swann’s establishment of African-American Fine Art as a dedicated department.

 

An Insight into Romare Bearden’s Artistic Vision


October 25, 1949

The earliest letter, postmarked October 25, 1949, offers insight into Bearden’s artistic vision and the life of a struggling young artist: “. . . The great power of the painter lies in his ability to show and not depict. . . . The serious artist, still attempting this moribund craft of easel painting, will forsake all illustratory purposes. . . . The camera and the motion picture, and all these present means of expression has forced the artist to reconsider his position. Then, too, might not there be a little room within peoples’ frameworks for the contemplation of the beautiful? As Lenin said, ‘the people do not necessarily want their miseries constantly mirrored for them.'”

   

November 21, 1955

Bearden’s November 21, 1955 letter discusses popular reaction to his work: “There are not too many people who are grasping what I’m after in this exhibition of painting. Especially the collectors who formerly bought my work. . . . I’ve tried in these latest works to incorporate some of the principles of the masters that must be present in all works. . . . I look with unending delight at the paintings of Titian, Velasquez, and Rembrandt, but where their pictures were involved and made cohesive in a hundred different ways, I might be able to use only three or four. . . . I want to compose with color and give it its own head, like one must do with a fine dog on the track of something. . . . Color if used successfully is a force, a position, and among other things an element. You start off with your blank paper, or canvas, and you place an orange, or a blue, and something happens. The orange will want to be heard from again, and the blue will be there like a shrill note that wants for immediate orchestration. . . . I like to think now of painting, my painting that is, as a kind of silent music.”

 

Henderson on Bearden’s Interest in Abstract Expressionism


 
Romare Bearden, Wine Star, abstract oil on canvas, circa 1959-60.
Romare Bearden, Wine Star, oil on canvas, circa 1959-60. Sold December 15, 2015 in African-American Fine Art for $125,000.
 

Harry Henderson spoke about Bearden’s interest in Abstract Expressionism in an interview in 1989: “When Abstract Expressionism came up, Romy was very excited. But he found problems in that these artists worked purely from feeling and determined things in a subjective sense. Romy could not react subjectively to his feelings. He found a rationale by studying Zen philosophy. His works were always serene and lacked the tremendous physical involvement employed by the Abstract Expressionists.”1

1. Gelburd/Rosenberg p. 40

Related Reading: Artist Profile: Norman Lewis

 

Nigel Freeman on the 2005 Sale of Harry Henderson’s Art Collection


We asked our Director of African-American Fine Art, Nigel Freeman, to reflect on the sale of Harry Henderson’s art collection in 2005, and its impact:

“The relationship of Harry Henderson and Romare Bearden made the breakthrough of our African-American Fine Art department possible. It started in the summer of 2004 when I was contacted by a law firm representing the estate of the writer Harry B. Henderson, Jr.

   

“Henderson had accrued a small but wonderful collection of works by Bearden, including two small but significant collages, Pittsburgh, 1965, and Family, 1970, which were included in his 2004 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, and an important abstract painting, Blue is the Smoke of War, White the Bones of Men, circa 1960. I appraised the collection in his home in Croton-on-Hudson but without seeing the collages in person. While we waited for the tour to finish with the collages, the estate agreed to sell the works.

 
Romare Bearden Pittsburgh, collage of various papers with ink on cardboard, 1965.
Romare Bearden, Family, collage of various papers with paint, ink and graphite on wood, 1970. Sold September 15, 2005 as part of 100 Fine Works on Paper for $106,375.
 
Romare Bearden, Family, collage of various papers with paint, ink and graphite on wood, 1970
Romare Bearden Pittsburgh, collage of various papers with ink on cardboard, 1965. Sold September 15, 2005 as part of 100 Fine Works on Paper for $106,375.
 

“We offered the Harry B. Henderson Collection of Important Works by Romare Bearden at auction on September 15, 2005. The collection of 11 artworks was part of a section of the 100 Fine Works on Paper catalogue. Around the collection, I was able to assemble consignments of other works by African-American artists, including Loïs Mailou Jones, Norman Lewis, Dox Thrash, Hale Woodruff and several others. Both collages sold for $106,375 with buyer’s premium, against estimates of $30,000-50,000, and established new auction records for Romare Bearden at the time. Afterwards, more collectors wanted to consign and we were primed to make a bigger move into this market. As a result, we announced the new department in the fall of 2006, and had our first auction in February of 2007.”

 

Related Reading: Introduction to the Catalogue for the Johnson Publishing Co. Collection


 

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