“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.”
These compelling words, captured in Russell Adams’ 1976 work, Great Negroes: Past and Present, belong to Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé. For Barthé, whose career spanned a half-century, art was a spiritual and intimate process that went far beyond the superficial look of a finished piece. The talented sculptor fully promoted and believed that if an artist considered how an object felt rather than how it looked, that artist’s hands could create a sculpture with little interference from his conscious mind.
As a child reared on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Barthé turned to art as a means of coping with the numerous illnesses he suffered while coming of age. By his teenage years, his artistic talents were obvious and some of those who took notice of his drawings rallied to fund his admission to the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few art schools accepting Black students. There, Barthé took classes with fellow artist, Ellis Wilson, while receiving private instruction from prominent teachers like Archibald Motley, Jr. and others.
While a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Barthé debuted as a professional sculptor at The Negro in Art Week exhibition in 1927. Upon graduating, he left for New York where he opened a studio in Harlem and soon established a reputation for himself amidst the “New Negro Movement” and among such artists and scholars as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. As Barthé immersed himself in the cultural dynamics of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke and Hughes both supported and promoted his extraordinary work.
Given this support and his rapidly growing reputation—and despite struggling, like most, to make ends meet through the Depression—Barthé became one of the first African-American visual artists to develop a commercial career in New York. Although adamant about capturing subjects of all races, he was best known in the 1930s and 1940s for sculpting Black allegorical and genre figures incorporating his Christian faith and his love for theater, dance, and African lore.
In the late 1940s, while at the pinnacle of his career, Barthé relocated to Jamaica where his art continued to flourish for two decades. During his lengthy career, he received numerous recognitions and awards for his art including numerous Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships.
Around 1970, Barthé travelled to Europe where he lived in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy before returning to the United States in 1977, broke and ill. Upon settling in Pasadena, California, Barthé became close friends with actor James Garner, star of the popular TV series, The Rockford Files. Before Barthé’s 1989 death, Garner supported the artist financially, helped him with legal issues, and ultimately established the Richmond Barthé Trust.
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