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 Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships. Considered by critics to be one of the leading “moderns” of his time, Barthé’s sculpture bridges the gap between realism and abstraction.

Growing up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Barthé was frequently sick and enjoyed art as a diversion. As his talent became more evident, supporters raised money to fund his enrollment at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of only two art academies that accepted African American students at that time. In Chicago, Barthé attended classes with his friend and classmate Ellis Wilson and also undertook private instruction with notable independent teachers, including Archibald Motley Jr., all the while working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Following his graduation from the 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 poet Langston Hughes.

Barthé was open to studying and depicting people of all races, creeds, and demographics. Eager to understand the nature of societies and the individuals 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 executed during the 1930s and 1940s, works inspired by his Christian faith, interest in African lore, and fascination with theater and dance.

Barthé left New York City at the height of his career in the late 1940s and moved to Jamaica in the late 1940s. Though soon forgotten by New York art critics, Barthé’s career flourished in Jamaica. Two decades later, he went on hiatus to Europe, living in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy over a five-year period. Impoverished, aging, and unwell, Barthé returned to the United States in 1977. He settled in Pasadena, California, where he befriended the actor James Garner. Garner became a faithful benefactor, supporting Barthé financially, assisting him with copyright issues, and establishing the Richmond Barthé Trust.