Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé approached art-making as a spiritual endeavor. He believed that if an artist considered how an object felt, rather than how it looked, then his hands could execute the sculpture with little interference from his conscious mind. During his sixty-year career, Barthé received numerous prestigious awards for his art, including the Rosenwald Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. Considered by critics to be one of the leading “moderns” of his time, Barthé’s sculpture bridges the gap between realism and abstraction.
Born and reared in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Barthé was a member of a Creole Roman Catholic family. Although his father died when he was just an infant, Barthé’s mother actively encouraged her often sickly son’s artistic inclinations by providing him with drawing materials. Both the Gulf shoreline and Catholic Church provided ample source material for his early endeavors. With only a middle school education, young “Jimmie,” as he was familiarly known, accepted a position as a houseboy in New Orleans, moving to that city at the age of fourteen. Fortunately, the family for whom Barthé worked was supportive of his artistic pursuits. After Barthé donated two oil paintings to the all-black church he attended there, the parish priest raised money to fund Barthé’s 1924 travel to and enrollment at the Art Institute in Chicago, one of only two art academies that accepted African American students at that time.
In Chicago, Barthé attended painting and sculpture classes at the institute with his friend and classmate Ellis Wilson. He also undertook private instruction with notable independent teachers, including Archibald Motley, Jr., all the while working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The year 1928 marked a turning point in Barthé’s career when two of his busts were exhibited in the newly organized Negro in Art Week Exhibition and the annual exhibition of the Chicago Art League. His work was well received and even praised later that year in the November issue of Opportunity Magazine. As a result, Barthé received numerous commissions for bust portraits. Upon graduation from the Art Institute in 1929, Barthé relocated to New York, where he established a studio in Harlem. Immersing himself in the cultural renaissance flourishing there, Barthé developed a reputation among scholars of the New Negro Movement, including Alain Locke, who became a passionate collector and promoter of his work, as well as Langston Hughes.
As a homosexual African American man, Barthé maintained an openness to studying people of all races, creeds, and demographics. Eager to understand the nature of societies and the people who function within them, Barthé sought to capture the spiritual essence of his subjects. “For me,” he said, “there is no Negro art—only art. I have not limited myself to Negro subjects. It makes no difference in my approach to the subject matter whether I am to model a Scandinavian or an African dancer.” However, he is best known for the allegorical and genre figures of African Americans he executed during the 1930s and 1940s, subjects inspired by his Christian faith, interest in African lore, and fascination with theatre and dance. During these decades, Barthé was the only black sculptor for whom the male nude was central. These figures initially appear to fit within the Realist tradition, but their elongated and sometimes distorted forms lend an Expressionist quality.
The artist’s talent did not go unnoticed. In 1934, Barthé was awarded his first solo show at the Caz Delbo Gallery in New York City and was invited to execute several significant pieces of public art. Shortly thereafter, his work found its way into the Whitney Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Art Institute of Chicago, among other acclaimed public institutions. Eager to escape what he described as the increasingly tense and violent environment, Barthé left New York City at the height of his career and moved to Jamaica in the late 1940s. Though soon forgotten by New York art critics, Barthé’s career flourished in Jamaica. He relished the inspirational beauty of Jamaica, which he compared to that of his childhood home. But when gang-related violence became problematic in that country in the 1960s, the artist went on hiatus to Europe, living in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy over a five-year period. Struggling financially, Barthé returned to the United States in 1977. He took up residence in Pasadena, California, where he remained and continued sculpting until his death. Barthé willed his papers and works to the actor James Garner, who had become a loyal benefactor and friend during the artist’s final years. Garner, in turn, donated these gifts to the Amistad Research Center and the Museum of African American Art.