Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) was a pioneer in American sculpture in the 1930s and 1940s in that he was one of the first African American artists to focus thematically on the lives of blacks, both in the United States and in Africa.
Trailblazing artist Richmond Barthé's sculpted works were seminal in that they focused on the lives of his fellow African Americans. He depicted African Americans at work in the fields of the South (Woman with Scythe, 1944), African Americans of distinction, and, in Mother and Son (1939), African Americans as victims of racial violence. He also sculpted images of African warriors and ceremonial participants.
Barthé was born on January 28, 1901, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to Richmond Barthé, Sr., and Marie Clementine Robateau. His father died before Barthé was a year old, and his mother's sewing supported the family. She later remarried, to William Franklin, an old friend and Barthé's godfather. Franklin worked in various odd jobs, including as an ice man, delivering ice throughout the rural community. According to Barthé, he was artistically inclined from a very young age. In A History of African American Artists, he is quoted as saying, "When I was crawling on the floor, my mother gave me paper and pencil to play with. It kept me quiet and she did her errands. At six years old I started painting. A lady my mother sewed for gave me a set of watercolors. By that time I could draw pretty well."
As a teenager, Barthé's artistic talent had attracted attention among several of his mother's clients, and among his stepfather's ice customers as well. Barthé used to help in the delivery during the summer. One of the customers, who knew of and admired Barthé's work, told the young boy that he would injure himself carrying such large chunks of ice all day long. She arranged for him to get a job with the Pond family in New Orleans, a very wealthy family with several homes and an interest in supporting the arts. Barthé stayed with the Ponds for several years, working as their houseboy while being encouraged to continue drawing and painting. Around this time, Barthé met Lyle Saxon, a writer working for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the two men became good friends. Saxon was very interested in Barthé's work and remained a champion of the artist after he became a well-known novelist.
Around 1923, a Catholic priest took an interest in Barthé's work and began looking for a local art school for him to attend. In the South, however, no school would admit a black, so the priest paid for Barthé to attend the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. Here, Barthé rapidly developed as an artist, studying with several important teachers. Barthé's most influential teacher was Charles Schroeder. It was ultimately Schroeder who suggested that Barthé try sculpture. Schroeder did not intend to suggest that Barthé, who was mainly a painter then, shift his medium, but for him to incorporate three dimensions into his art. It turned out, however, that Barthé was a gifted sculptor, as was immediately apparent from the creation of his first busts in art school. An Art Institute show included three of his works. From that show, Barthé received his first commission as a sculptor. The Lake County Children's Home in Gary, Indiana, saw Barthé's work and hired him to do busts of Henry O. Tanner and Toussaint L'Ouverture for its home. Barthé, who had taken no classes in sculpting, thus began a career as a sculptor. His talents so impressed his teachers at the Institute that they advised him not to take any classes, fearing that formal training might ruin the creative spark in his work.
Having taken up sculpture, Barthé's began drawing the kind of critical attention artists dream about but rarely achieve at such a young age. In 1929, just out of art school, Barthé received an offer for a one-man show in New York, a tremendous honor. Barthé, however, was reluctant to accept, feeling he had not fully developed yet, not wanting to show in an important art center such as New York until he had refined his form more. Barthé declined the offer and spent a year studying at the Art Students League in New York. In 1930, after returning to Chicago, he had a large show at the Women's City Club. The show was a major success and it won him a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship.
In 1931, Barthé felt he was finally ready for a New York show and one was arranged at the Caz-Delbo Gallery, a prestigious showcase. Barthé's work at this show drew high praise and Barthé moved to the city when his Rosenwald fellowship was continued. In 1933, he exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair and, in 1934, Xavier University in New Orleans awarded him an honorary master of arts degree. In 1934, Barthé had a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the preeminent contemporary art museum in the country. After the show, the museum purchased three of Barthé's sculptures for its permanent collection. By this time, Barthé was selling so much work that for the first time he could abandon side jobs and devote himself entirely to art.
Later in 1934, he went to Europe where the cultural heritage he observed fascinated him and where he also made several important sales to private collectors. In 1939, Barthé held his second one-man show in New York. It was his largest exhibition to date, including 18 bronze works, and was held at the Arden Galleries. Again, critical response was enthusiastic and on the strength of the work exhibited at these shows, Barthé was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1940 and in 1941. In 1943, The Boxer was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, America's largest and most important museum.
After the Second World War, the world of art began to change drastically, focusing on abstraction or distorted representations of reality. Barthé was not interested in these trends and was increasingly forgotten by the artistic establishment. As a result, Barthé began devoting much of his time to making portrait busts for wealthy New York clients, especially people involved in the theater. During and after the war, Barthé made busts of John Gielgud and Maurice Evans. Later works were of Lawrence Olivier, Katharine Cornell, and Judith Anderson. In 1946, he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. By the end of the 1940s, Barthé had grown tired of the art scene in New York (and depressed over his exclusion from it) and he bought a house in Jamaica on the advice of his doctor who told him that living in the city was hurting his health.
Over the next several years, Barthé became a tourist attraction on the island, while continuing to work. In 1953, he completed a forty-foot statue for the city of Port au Prince, Haiti, depicting Jean Jacques Dessalines, leader of the 1804 revolution. He also designed several Haitian coins that are still in use. At first, Barthé enjoyed the prestige of being an expatriate black artist living in seclusion on a small Caribbean island, but by 1969 he had grown restless and decided to move to Europe. He first went to Switzerland and then, in 1970, he moved to Florence. He stayed in Italy for the next seven years, then sold everything he owned and moved to California, where he rented an apartment from an admirer. Growing increasingly impoverished and old, and getting sick as well, Barthé became a charity case. The actor James Garner, who had only recently met him, was shocked that he should be living so poorly and began secretly paying his rent and medical expenses. Other artists and actors began to help Barthé too. The city of Pasadena renamed Barthé's street Barthé Drive. A fund-raising drive was also mounted to found the Barthé Historical Society and to fund thirty Barthé scholarships for artists.
Barthé's last known work was a bust of James Garner, made in appreciation for all of Garner's help late in Barthé's life. Barthé died on March 5, 1989.
Further Reading on Richmond Barthé
Bearden, Romare, A History of African American Artists, from 1792 to the present, Pantheon Books, 1993.
Fine, Elsa Honig, "A Search for Identity, " in The Afro-American Artists, Hacker Art Books, 1982.
New York Times, March 6, 1989.