Barthe once said: “...all my life I have be interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man.”
Richmond Barthé was born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi (in January 1901). His father died at 22, when Richmond was only one month old, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Barthé spent his teen years in New Orleans, Louisiana.
His fourth-grade teacher and his parish priest influenced young Richmond’s aesthetic development, and he showed great promise as an artist at a young age, but as a Colored American in the South, he was barred from enrolling in any of the art schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, near his home. When he was twelve, his work was shown at the county fair in Mississippi, and he continued to develop remarkably as an artist.
At fourteen, Barthé left school to take a job as houseboy and handyman, but he still spent his free time drawing. At eighteen, after Barthé had moved to New Orleans, his parish priest in New Orleans and a writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune recognized his ability. Richmond donated a portrait he made for a church fund raiser. The priest and the writer, along with his employer determined to find an art school where Barthé could study and expand his talent.
Lyle Saxon of the Times Picayune newspaper, fighting against current racist school segregation, tried unsuccessfully to get Barthé registered in art school in New Orleans. In 1924, with the aid of a Catholic priest, the Reverend Harry Kane, S.S.I, and with less than a high school education and no formal training in art, Barthé was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago. During the next four years Barthé followed a curriculum structured for majors in painting. During his four years of study he worked as a busboy at a small café. His work caught the attention of Dr. Charles Maceo Thompson, a patron of the arts and supporter of many talented young black artists. Barthé was a flattering portrait painter, and Dr. Thompson helped him to secure many lucrative commissions from the city’s affluent black citizens.
Richmond Barthe, "Boxer" (portrait of Cuban featherweight, "Kid Chocolate"), 1942, Art Institute of Chicago
Simon Speed/Prelinger Archives. Richmond Barthé at work in his studio in Harlem in the 1920s/1930s
Kenneth Macpherson & Jimmie Daniels (lovers) posing with Richmond Barthe's unfinished carving of Daniels, 1938
During his senior year he was introduced to sculpture by his anatomy teacher. He began modeling in clay to gain a better understanding of the third dimension in his painting. This transition proved to be, according to him, a turning point in his career. He exhibited two busts in the 1927 Negro in Art Week Exhibition and in the April 1928 annual exhibition of the Chicago Art League. He received much critical praise and numerous commissions following this.
Following his graduation from The Art Institute of Chicago in 1928, Barthé spent several months in New York, established a studio in Harlem, and eventually moved to NYC permanently in 1930. During the next two decades, he built his reputation as a sculptor. He is associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He won a Guggenheim fellowship twice and other awards. By 1934, his reputation was so well established that he was awarded his first solo show at the Caz Delbo Galleries in New York City. Barthé experienced success after success and was considered by writers and critics as one of the leading “moderns” of his time.
Among his African-American friends were Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Jimmie Daniels, Countee Cullen, and Harold Jackman. Ralph Ellison was his first student. His white allies included Carl Van Vechten, Noel Sullivan, Charles Cullen, Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French.
In 1946 Barthé became a member of the National Sculpture Society.
Eventually, the tense environment and violence of the city began to take its toll, and he decided to abandon his life of fame and move to Jamaica in the West Indies in 1947. His career flourished in Jamaica and he remained there until the mid-1960s when ever-growing violence forced him to yet again move. For the next five years he lived in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy before eventually settling in Pasadena, California. When he moved to a rental apartment, above a garage in Pasadena, the city named the street after him. In that apartment, Barthe worked on his memoirs and most importantly, editioned many of his works with the financial assistance of the actor James Garner until his death in 1989.
Barthe: A Life in Sculpture by Margaret Rose Vendryes and Jeffrey C. Stewart
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (October 22, 2008)
Amazon: Barthe: A Life in Sculpture
Richmond Barthé (1909-1989) was the first modern African American sculptor to achieve real critical success. His accessible naturalism led to unprecedented celebrity for an artist during the 1930s and 1940s. After four years of academic training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Barthé reaped the benefits of the 1920s New Negro Arts Renaissance. He also endured difficulties as a gay, Roman Catholic, Creole sculptor working during the nation's post-World War II era. He gave his black subjects in particular an intensity and sensuality that attracted important European American patrons and the press.
Much of Barthé's biography is recorded here for the first time in tandem with analyses and interpretations of his sculpture. Born to Creole parents in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Barthé's art brought him out of poverty. At the height of his fame, he was often criticized for not talking about injustices African Americans faced. He expected his art to speak not only for itself, but also for him. He fled the United States for an expatriate's life in Jamaica only to learn that, as an artist and a black man, he could not be accepted on his own terms, and there was no such thing as a perfect home. Barthé: A Life in Sculpture reveals the breadth of Barthé's oeuvre through readings of his figurative masterworks that attest to accomplishments in a life lived well beyond race.
Independent scholar Margaret Rose Vendryes has taught art history and African American studies at York College, Princeton University, and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has published in International Review of African American Art and elsewhere. Jeffrey C. Stewart, professor of history at George Mason University, is the author of numerous articles and books, including Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen.
More Artists at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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