At work in his Harlem studio in the 1920s or 30s
January 28, 1901|
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
|Died||March 5, 1989
|Education||Art Institute of Chicago|
James Richmond Barthé (January 28, 1901 – March 5, 1989) was an African-American sculptor known for his many public works, including the Toussaint L’Ouverture Monument in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a sculpture of Rose McClendon for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House.
Barthe once said: “...all my life I have been 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.
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.
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.
Public works and honors
Some of his major public works included the Toussaint L’Ouverture Monument (1950) installed originally at the Haitian National Palace and the General Jean-Jacques Dessalines Monument (1952), in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Green Pastures: Walls of Jericho for the Harlem River Housing Project, and a sculpture of Rose McClendon (1932), the African-American actress, for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House.
Barthe's Haitian works came in a time after his 1947 move to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and were among his largest and most famous works. The huge equestrian bronze of Dessalines was one of four heroic sculptures commissioned in 1948 by Haitian political leaders to mark independence celebrations. The Dessalines monument was part of a larger 1954 restoration of the Champs-du-Mars park in Port-au-Prince, Barthe's 40-foot-high L'Overture statue and stone monument was positioned nearer the National Palace, and was unveiled in 1950 with two other commissioned heroic sculptures (in the capital and in the north of the county) by Cuban sculptor Blanco Ramos. At the time, one African-American newspaper called the collection "the Greatest Negro Monuments on earth."  L'Overture was in fact a subject Barthe returned to several times, having created a bust (1926) and painted portrait (1929) of the figure early in his career.
Richmond Barthé received many honors during his career, including the Rosenwald Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1945, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received awards for interracial justice and honorary degrees from Xavier and St. Francis Universities. He was the recipient of the Audubon Artists Gold Medal in 1950.
- Black, Patti Carr. American Masters of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: George Ohr, Dusti Bongé, Walter Anderson, Richmond Barthe. Jackson, Miss.: Mississippi Arts Commission; Starkville, Miss.: Department of Art, Mississippi State University, 2009.
- Gates, H. L., Higginbotham, E. B., & W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. (2004). African American lives. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 52. ISBN 019516024X.
- Vendryes (2009), pp. 143-152.
- Léon Dénius Pamphile. Haitians and African Americans: a heritage of tragedy and hope. University Press of Florida (2001). ISBN 978-0-8130-2119-5 p.163
- Vendryes (2009), pp. 23, 42.
- Carrie Golas. Barthe, Richmond 1901–1989. In Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 14, L. Mpho Mabunda (ed). Gale Research (1997) ISBN 978-0-7876-0953-5
- Samella Lewis. Richmond Barthe: His Life in Art. Unity Works (2009) ISBN 978-0-692-00201-8
- Margaret Rose Vendryes. Barthé: a life in sculpture University of Press of Mississippi (2008) ISBN 978-1-60473-092-0
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Richmond Barthé.|
- RICHMOND BARTHE: HIS LIFE IN ART Barthe and His Public Works. (photo gallery of Barthe's larger works in situ at time of installation) from Samella Lewis. Richmond Barthe: His Life in Art. Unity Works (2009) ISBN 978-0-692-00201-8
- Richmond Barthé exhibit at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art