Barthe, Richmond 1901–1989
Richmond Barthe 1901–1989
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Richmond Barthe was one of the first sculptors to focus on blacks as his main subjects. During the 1930s and 1940s, when he reached the height of his career, Barthe achieved critical acclaim, commercial success, and widespread popularity. The African American community, in particular, responded positively to Barthe’s sympathetic portrayals of blacks. “Aesthetically, he brought a new insight to the individuality and physical grace of all types of black people,” Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson wrote in A History of African-American Artists.
Barthe’s sculptures have been collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as many other museums and universities. His most famous public works include an eagle that stands in front of the Social Security Building in Washington, DC, and a 40-foot statue of Haitian revolutionary Jean Jacques Dessalines, which he created for the city of Port-au-Prince. Barthe also designed several Haitian coins that are still in use.
Barthe took a traditional approach to sculpture, sometimes exaggerating certain aspects of a figure, but always maintaining a strong undercurrent of realism. After World War II, when the art world became interested in more abstract forms of expression, his career waned. Abstract sculpture did not hold an attraction for Barthe, who remained a traditionalist. “All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man,” he was quoted as saying in Great Negroes, Past and Present.
Barthe was born on January 28, 1901, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on land that had once been part of a large property owned by his maternal grandfather. His parents, Richmond Barthe, Sr. and Marie Clementine (Robateau) Barthe, were of African, French, Spanish, and Native American descent. His father died, when Barthe was just a few months old. From that point, his mother supported the family by working as a dressmaker. Later, she married William Franklin, Barthe’s godfather
At a Glance…
Born Richmond Barthe, January 28, 1901, BaySt Louis, MS;died March 6 1989, Pasadena, CA;son of Richmond Barthe Sr. and Marie Clementine (Robateau) Barthe, a dressmaker. Education: Art Inst. of Chicago. Religion: Catholic.
Sculptor.Solo shows included William Grant Still Community Art Center, 1978; Inst. Jamaica, 1959; Montclair Art Museum, NJ, 1949; Margaret Brown Galleries, Boston, MA, 1947; Grand Central Art Galleries, NY, NY, 1947; Sayville Playhouse, NY, NY, 1945;Intl .Print Soc., 1945; DePorres Interracial Center, 1945; South Side Art Ctr, Chicago, IL, 1942; Arden Galleries, New York, NY, 1939; Delphic Studios, 1935; Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 1931-33; Grand Rapids Art Gallery, Ml, 1930.
Numerous group shows, including Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Chicago World’s Fair; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Afro-American History and Culture Museum, Philadelphia, PA; Los Angeles County Art Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
Represented in permanent collections of Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Art Institute of Chicago, Jamaican Public Library, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Los Angeles County Art Museum, Yale Univ. Museum, Howard Univ.Gallery of Art, Tuskegee Univ. Gallery of Art, and others.
Awards: Julius Rosenwald fund fellowship, 1930; Guggenheim fellowship, 1940; “Artists for Victory” prize, 1942.Commissions for busts of Booker T. Washington and Dr. George Washington Carver, Hall of Fame; sculpture for Social Security Bldg., Washington, D.C.; monuments of Toussaint L’Ouverture and General Dessalines, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; designs for Haitian coins.
whose job was delivering ice.
Barthe’s artistic ability was discovered early; his mother claimed that “Jimmie,” as she called him, could draw before he could walk. “When I was crawling on the floor, my mother gave me paper and pencil to play with,” Barthe was quoted as saying in A History of African-American Artists. “It kept me quiet while 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 very well.”
The family were devout Catholics. Barthe attended St. Rose de Lima Parochial School, then Valena Jones High School, leaving when he was 14. He then held various jobs in a restaurant, an office, and helping his stepfather on the ice truck. However, one of his stepfather’s white customers, an artist herself, was concerned that carrying cold ice on his shoulder might give him rheumatism and prevent him from painting. She introduced him to some white friends, the Pond family, who hired him as a household servant.
Barthe moved with the Ponds to New Orleans, where he lived for the next nine years. The Ponds held liberal views about race for their time, and treated Barthe more as a member of the family than as a servant. They included him in social events in their home, took him to the theater, and encouraged him in his art. During his years with the Ponds, Barthe learned to feel comfortable in a range of social situations—a skill that would help him later in his career, when he was often commissioned by wealthy people to sculpt their portraits.
In his free time, Barthe continued to work on his drawing, copying paintings that the Ponds owned or reproductions from their library. When Barthe was 23, he did his first oil painting, a portrait of Christ, and donated it to a local church to be auctioned at its charity bazaar. Father Kane, the parish priest, was astounded that the artist was a butler with no art training and decided that Barthe should go to art school. At the time, no local schools would accept black students, but Father Kane would not be deterred. He took up a collection from his friends, added some of his own money, and sent Barthe north, to the Art Institute of Chicago.
From 1924 to 1928, Barthe studied painting and drawing at the Art Institute, while working as a waiter to help support himself. In addition to his classes, Barthe studied privately with the black painter Archibald Motley, who was ten years older and also a graduate of the Art Institute. It was the first time Barthe had been allowed the opportunity to work with a black model—an experience that would strongly influence his later work.
At the Art Institute, Barthe made his first experiments with sculpture. One of his teachers encouraged him to sculpt some heads in clay, claiming that it would give Barthe a feeling for a “third dimension” in his painting. The heads turned out so well that Barthe decided to cast them, and they were shown at an exhibition of work by black artists, sponsored by the Chicago Women’s Club. This exhibition led to his first commission: busts of the artist Henry Tanner and Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.
In 1929, Barthe was offered his first one-man show in New York City. Feeling unprepared, he turned it down and instead studied at the Art Students League in New York. Returning to Chicago in 1930, he had his first solo exhibition at the Women’s City Club. As a result of this exhibition, he was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship.
Returning to New York, Barthe went through an extremely productive period, creating more than 25 figures inspired by the black experience, including African Girl, The Lindy Hop, and The Deviled Crab-Man. In 1931, Barthe had his first one-man exhibition in New York City, which was very well received; the critic for the New York Times called him “a sculptor of unmistakable promise.” He then decided to settle in New York City permanently.
While Barthe created work in brass, marble, terra cotta, wood, and stone, he preferred to work in clay that was cast into bronze. Barthe’s main interest outside of portraiture was to capture the human body in motion; according to A History of African-American Artists, Barthe created “a tension between the repose and the supple action of his figures.” During the 1930s, he joined a modern dance group at Martha Graham’s studio, in order to understand the body’s musculature even more fully.
While the Great Depression years were difficult for many artists, Barthe continued to achieve both critical and financial success; he was one of the first African American artists who was able to support himself by creating art. During the 1930s, three pieces-B/ackber- ry Woman, African Dancer, and The Comedian-were purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. His sculptures were also exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, along with the work of Henry Tanner and his former teacher, Archibald Motley.
While Barthe’s work was not generally political in nature, he occasionally created sculptures that reflected racial conflict in the United States. One example was a piece called Head of a Tortured Negro. Another, Mother and Son, modeled after Michaelangelo’s Pieta, shows a black mother mourning over her dead son, who has rope marks on his neck, showing that he had been lynched.
In late 1934, Barthe traveled to Europe, a trip which led to more exhibitions and commissions. In March of 1939, Barthe’s largest exhibition, consisting of 18 bronzes, opened in New York City. This exhibition was also well received and helped him to win a Guggenheim fellowship in 1940, and again in 1941.
After World War II began in 1941, Barthe was in demand for U.S. war propaganda. The Office of War Information made a film of Barthe at work, which was shown in the United States and overseas. In 1942, he was awarded a prize at the “Artists for Victory” exhibition. While Barthe cooperated with these efforts, he understood exactly why he was suddenly receiving so much publicity. “This was the answer to Hitler and the Japanese who said that ’America talks democracy, but look at the American Negro,’” he was quoted as saying in A History of African-American Artists. “I think I have gotten more publicity than most white artists, most of it because I was a Negro.”
Throughout the 1940s, Barthe’s success continued. In 1943, one of his pieces, The Boxer, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1945, he received a commission for a bust of Booker T. Washington for New York University’s Hall of Fame, leading to a pair of firsts: Washington was the first black person to have his bust in the Hall of Fame, and Barthe was the first black artist to be asked to create a bust. In 1947, he travelled to Haiti, where he created monumental sculptures of leaders Toussaint L’Ouverture and General Dessalines. He also designed new Haitian coins, for which he was paid nearly $100,000.
However, even as Barthe continued to receive commissions, tastes in art were changing. Abstract work was gaining prestige, and critics were less receptive to traditional representational sculpture. In 1947, Barthe exhibited a collection of sculptures that depicted actors in their favorite or current theatrical roles. Critical response was favorable but unenthusiastic. “In their over-elaboration of meaningless details of costume and feature, they are made commonplace and quite empty of inner meaning,” wrote the critic for the New York World-Telegram (quoted in A History of African-American Artists).
By late 1947, Barthe was feeling unhappy in New York City. Nearly to the point of nervous collapse, he was quoted as saying in A History of African-American Artists: “My nerve ends were sick, and my doctor ordered me to leave [the city]. “The next year, he moved to Jamaica, where he gradually resumed his work, receiving a steady flow of commissions from wealthy tourists.
In the mid-1960s, during the civil rights era in the United States, Barthe’s work was once again in vogue. The mayor of his hometown invited him back and presented him with the key to the city. A reception was given for him at Tulane University in New Orleans, a city where Barthe once could not find an art school that would accept him. The publicity from these events, as well as an increase of tourists to Jamaica, brought a huge number of visitors to Barthe’s home. Once again, Barthe felt overwhelmed by crowds. In 1970, he moved to Florence, Italy, where he continued to make busts, though he did not exhibit his work publicly.
In 1977, Barthe returned to the United States, settling in Pasadena, California, near a sister in San Francisco. By this time, he was elderly and impoverished. Having lived for so many years outside the United States and never having held a salaried job, Barthe was ineligible for Social Security benefits. It was a cruel twist of fate for the artist whose sculpture of an eagle stood in front of Washington’s Social Security Building. Meanwhile, Barthe’s work continued to be exhibited occasionally. In 1981, the Museum of African American Art in Santa Monica, California, showed his work as part of the special exhibition “Afro-American Art.” However, Barthe was no longer capable of earning enough money to support himself.
While living in Pasadena, Barthe met an unlikely advocate, the actor James Garner, who was then working on the television series The Rockford Files. The two became close friends. Realizing how desperate Barthe’s situation was, Garner paid his rent and medical bills. To show his appreciation, Barthe modeled a bust of Garner, which is believed to be his last sculpture. After a few years of illness, Barthe died on March 6, 1989, at the age of 88.
In 1993, Barthe’s work was exhibited posthumously, along with the work of African American artist Richard Hunt, in the show “Two Sculptors, Two Eras. “The show, which opened at the Washington’s Anacostia Museum and traveled to museums in Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana, receiving positive reviews at all of them.
Throughout his career, Barthe sculpted a wide range of subjects, from religious figures to stage celebrities, but he will perhaps be best remembered as one of the first artists to create realistic, sympathetic sculptures of blacks. According to Bearden and Henderson, writing in A History of African-American Artists, “Barthe must be considered one of the most distinguished contributors to American sculpture. ”
Adams, Russell L., Great Negroes, Past and Present, by Russell L. Adams, Afro-Am Publishing Company, 1984, p. 197.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993, pp. 136-146.
Richardson, Ben, Great American Negroes, Crowell, 1956, pp. 92-100.
Art in America, July 1993, p. 109.
ARTnews, March 1994, p. 146.
The New York Times, March 16, 1988.
The South Atlantic Quarterly, Summer 1975, p. 324.
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.
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. □