Romare Bearden is known today as one of the most influential African-American artists of the 20th century. His painting The Soul Never Dwells in a Dry Place was produced in 1946 during a highly transitional state in his career and personal life.
Bearden had just returned from the European front in World War II, and just a few years later he would travel to Paris to study at the Sorbonne under the auspices of the GI Bill. He was represented by a new Avant-garde gallerist named Samuel Kootz, who was also representing the likes of Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Carl Holty. Bearden would produce artwork during his free time while he was not at work in the Department of Social Services. The works he produced during this time mark his return to making art after the traumas of war. This is evident in the humanist tones in the literary works he would take inspiration from.
Stylistically abstract, this work serves as an example of Bearden’s shift away from his figurative pre-war works. The figures represented are somewhat recognizable, but fractured, rotated, and boldly outlined. The thick black lines which segment these bright figures echo the famed Expressionist Georges Rouault, his MoMA retrospective occurred just a year before in 1945. The abstracted forms are also somewhat reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, which Bearden would have seen many times, as it was also on display at MoMA. The emotion that is prevalent in Guernica would perhaps have reminded Bearden of the war he had just returned from. Like most soldiers, he was deeply impacted by his wartime experience, which might explain the focus on literary subjects rather than the current state of man.
The Soul Never Dwells in a Dry Place derives its title from François Rabelais’ famous 15th-century literary work Gargantua & Pantagruel, the bawdy tale of two giants who are father and son. Other artists like Joan Miro and Salvador Dali have also used Pantagruel in particular as inspiration. It is likely that this work was displayed in Bearden’s 1947 show New Paintings by Bearden at Samuel Kootz’s gallery, where his other Rabelaisian works were exhibited. Bearden’s close friend Barrie Stevens described this series in the exhibition catalog as “Affirmations of man in relation to his life: in them, Bearden says there are good seasons in life.”
Beginning with his first one-man show at Kootz Gallery in 1945, titled “The Passion of Christ”, one of several shows formed form literary works; Bearden began experimenting into working with oil paints, as he had largely worked with watercolors and gouache before. He would begin the process by tracing
Beginning with his first one-man show at Kootz Gallery in 1945, titled “The Passion of Christ”, one of several shows formed form literary works; Bearden began experimenting into working with oil paints, as he had largely worked with watercolors and gouache before. He would begin the process by tracing photo-static enlargements of his watercolors on to gessoed panels. He would then paint out the composition using diluted oil paints. It is most likely that this is how Bearden composed this painting, evidenced by this watercolor with the same title.