Romare Bearden was born to (Richard) Howard and Bessye Bearden in Charlotte, North Carolina, the seat of Mecklenburg County, on 2 September 1911. Due to Jim Crow laws, life became increasingly difficult for African Americans, even for such college educated and economically successful families as the Beardens. Therefore, about 1914, Howard, Bessye, and Romare joined in the Great Migration north, settling in New York City, which remained Bearden's base for the rest of his life.
Bessye became a social and political activist and was the New York correspondent for the African-American newspaper, Chicago Defender, while Howard worked as a city sanitation inspector, played the piano in his off-hours, and, according to Bearden's close friend author Ralph Ellison, was "a teller of tales." Their life was centered in the intellectual, artistic, and political mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance: among their friends were writer Countee Cullen; musician Duke Ellington; actor, activist, and athlete Paul Robeson; the founder-president of the National Council of Negro Women, Mary McLeod Bethune; and the first African-American surgical intern at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Aubré de L. Maynard.
Bearden's interest in art was sparked by experiences with a childhood friend in Pittsburgh and his early love of cartooning. After a year of studies in science and mathematics at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Bearden went on to study art and art education, including two years at Boston University and courses with German-born artist George Grosz at the Art Students League, and graduated with a degree in education from New York University. There he had been a lead cartoonist and then art editor for the college's monthly journal The Medley. The first of many of his journal covers was published during his university years as well as the first of numerous texts he would write on social and artistic issues. Between 1935 and 1937 he was a weekly editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Afro-American. In later years Bearden's collages appeared on the covers of Fortune and Time magazines, among many others; and his many publications include A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, which was coauthored with Harry Henderson and published posthumously in 1993.
Employed by the New York City Department of Social Services, Bearden worked in his studio on weekends and evenings. He had his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940 and his first solo show in a major mainstream gallery (in Washington, D.C.) in 1944. In addition, his work was exhibited in Paris before the end of the decade. Bearden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, was assigned to the First Headquarters, Fifteenth Regiment, the all-black 372nd Infantry Division, and was honorably discharged. After the war, during the late 1940s, he was part of the Samuel Kootz Gallery in Manhattan, which represented prominent artists including Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and Robert Motherwell.
In 1950, Bearden used the G.I. Bill to travel to Paris, France, for several months. There he studied literature, philosophy, Buddhism, and spent many hours in museums, not only in France but also in Italy and Spain. Back in New York, he returned to his job at the Department of Social Services where he worked full-time through 1966, and part time until 1969. Through the early 1950s he also maintained a successful career as a lyricist. In 1954 Bearden married Nanette Rohan, a choreographer and dancer, with whom he spent the rest of his life. In the early 1970s the Beardens established a second residence on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, Nanette's ancestral home.
He joined the prestigious Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in the early 1960s, where his work was represented for the rest of his life. He was also included in exhibitions throughout the United States and occasionally in Europe. Bearden's oeuvre includes book and poster illustrations, and he designed costumes and sets for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and programs, sets, and costumes for Nanette Bearden's Contemporary Dance Theatre. He also completed more than a dozen mural commissions in a variety of media including collage, ceramic tile, and faceted glass.
In addition to being an artist and writer Bearden was an eloquent spokesman on artistic and social issues of the day. His participation in arts organizations included his role as a founding member of Spiral, an association of African American artists that came together in 1963 to support the civil rights movement; his 1964 appointment as the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African American advocacy group with several hundred members; and his role in concert with artists Ernest Crichlow and Norman Lewis (with seed money from the Ford Foundation), as a founding member of Cinque Gallery which supported young minority artists. He was also active in the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Among Bearden's many awards and honors were his election to the American Academy of Design and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1987, one year before he died, Romare Bearden received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan.