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the art of richard barthé.


RICHARD BARTHÉ, BORN JANUARY TWENTY-EIGHT, NINETEEN-HUNDRED AND ONE, WAS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN SCULPTOR AND WAS A FIGURE DURING THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE. HIS WORK FOCUSED ON BLACK SUBJECTS AND SPIRITUALITY OF MAN. "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."

Portrait of Richmond Barthé by Carl Van Vechten, March 1933. 
© Van Vechten Trust. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. 

James Richmond Barthé was born in 1901 to parents Richardmond Barthé and Marie Clementine Robateau. Little is known about his childhood, though we do know that his father died when the child was a few months old and that his mother worked as a dressmaker and would eventually remarry. We also have a keen understanding that Barthé showed interest in painting and art and that his former school years only extended to grade school.

"When I was crawling on the floor, my mother gave me paper and a pencil to play with. 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."

In 1924, his artistic talents became noticed by his parish priest after he donated two of his paintings for a fundraiser. The priest, impressed with the gifted talent, encouraged the natural artist to apply to the Art Insitute of Chicago, and he even raised the funds from his tuition. The young artist applied to two colleges: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Art Institute of Chicago, he would be accepted to the second of the two.

Richard Borthé with the bust of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. In 1947, the President of Haiti, Dumarsais Estimé asked Barthé to build a sculpture of Toussaint Louventure and Jean-Jacques Dessalines as public monuments. 

The next four years he followed a list that had been structured for painting. It was during this time that he had the attention of a patron of the arts, Dr. Charles Maceo, who also was an avid supporter of talented black artists. It was the help of Maceo that Barthé would paint commissions from the city's affluent black citizens. 

Though he studied painting more than anything other artistic medium, his talent was a sculptor was apparent, even to his fellow peers and the local Chicago art critics. Sculpting came to him, not in an art class in the traditional term of the word, but in his anatomy class, where his professor had his students sculpt the human form as a way to better understand the three-dimensional form, this was a turning point in the artist's life. 

Barthé would have his debut in 1927, as a professional sculptor at The Negro in Art Week exhibition, all while still a student of painting. The critical acclaim from this another exhibit promoted numerous commissions, like the Bust of Henry O. Tanner. In 1929, still in his late twenties, he made the wise decision to head off for New York. 

Feral Benga.

After moving to New York City, he became simply Barthé and began to socialize and create art with some of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. His work during this time and his most well-regarded work was a celebration of African culture and the black body, and according to a scholar of Barthé, a reflection of his comfort with homosexuality. Feral Benga and African Dancer are some of his most prized work. One particular sculpture is haunting yet essential to history: "The Mother", which was later destroyed in 1940, by Barthé himself. The photograph that remains is the depiction of a mother holding her dead son, who had been a victim of a lynching. The sculpture was a take on the traditional scene of Mary holding Jesus. 


During the Great Depression, while other artist's struggled to find work, Barthé was working and this is considered his most prolific years. He arrived in New York at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance and set up a studio in Harlem and another in Greenwich Village. Over the next twenty or so years, the studios were a massive success, selling work to the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, as well to wealthy art collectors. 

His work, "Blackberry Woman" in 1930, would be his first major piece after moving to New York.

Blackberry Women.

At the start of his New York career, he was unable to hire live models, so he began to find inspiration elsewhere, like on the stage. He used the artists, dance performers, and actors that he was surrounded by as models. Like other master artists, he used his remarkable memory and would produce numerous works of the human body, mostly always in movement.


In the mid-thirties is work was exhibited at the Rockefeller Center alongside other artists, such as Picasso and Matisse. It's around this time that he would create "The Mother". During the late-thirties and for the next twenty years he would go on to produce a number of public pieces, the first being a commission from the New York City's Federal Art Project. An 80-foot-bas-relief in cast stone, though it would end up at the Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn. Two of the most popular works of his time would be the bronze Toussaint L'Ouverture, created in 1950, and a bronze statue of Jean Jacques Dessalines, in 1952.

Though during the sixties and up until his death he left the United States for a quiet, violence-free life, his work has stood the test of trend and time, with most of his art still on view and in study with thousands of art students and art-admirers discovering his most prominent and less popular works. With a string of honors in his life, such as the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1930, becoming the first African American artist to be in the Met's permanent collection, to a street being named after him in California, Barthé Drive, and to being honored with an award from President Carter in 1980. 

 Portrait of James Daniels posing with his marble bust by Barthé, and photographed by Carl Van Vechten. December 1938. © Van Vechten Trust.


This clip shows the artist at work, tending to a sculpture. We are met with knuckles and thumb-pads, molding the clay into haphazard shapes, before it will be smoothed over. The sleeves of his white dress shirt are rolled above his elbows, with hands that are imprinted with the metal of his tools, to his eyes that hardly leave his work. The outcome is classical; a scene of culture and high artistic achievement produced at the hands of a silent artist in this three-minute clip. From what is shown of the sculptures is a masterpiece of texture and structure, as the two single bodies come to life with detailed and molded curves of the human soul and history of the black body, enteral like the classical music that sounds in the background.

R.