AN ARTIST YOU SHOULD KNOW — Richard Yarde: One of the Greatest Watercolorists of the 20th Century

By Yvonne Bynoe

When museum acquisition committees meet, their charge is to select works that the museum should purchase for its permanent collection. Generally, the works for consideration are supposed to reflect the aims and mission of the institution. Unfortunately, many people who sit on acquisition committees have scant knowledge about African-American artists. Consequently, it is common that when an acquisition committee member proposes a work by an African-American artist, it’s someone “hot” who is being regularly exhibited and discussed in art publications. This selection process is short-sighted because it overlooks lesser known African-American artists whose work is relevant to U.S. history and whose work is foundational to the development of the art canon.

Richard Yarde (1939-2011) is the type of artist more museum acquisition committees should consider. 

Although Yarde is not a household name, he is recognized as one of the greatest watercolorists of the 20th century. His paintings can be found in the collections of the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as dozens of other public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the U.S. Embassy in Zambia. The most recent exhibit of his work was Richard Yarde: Beyond the Savoy which took place earlier this year at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition included approximately 28 paintings that reflect Yarde’s 40-year career.

Yarde is renowned for his 1982 installation of 3D watercolor paintings of the legendary Savoy Ballroom. The Savoy Ballroom operated on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York from 1926-1958. It was revolutionary not only because of its Jazz and Swing musical performances but also for its racially integrated audiences. Yarde’s exhibition of the Savoy series was organized by Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts. The exhibition then traveled to the San Diego Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and then to New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem, which is only a few blocks from the ballroom’s former location.

Saturday Night Midnight (Savoy Series)

Why Yarde Isn’t Better Known

One of the reasons Yarde isn’t as well-known as some of his contemporaries is that he lived most of his life in and around Boston and Western Massachusetts. His choice to confine his career to New England limited the reach of his work.

Yarde was born in Boston, MA in 1930 to immigrants from Barbados. He attended Boston University and earned both his BFA and MFA degrees there. He went on to become a professor of fine art at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The galleries in Boston simply could not provide Yarde with the same level of exposure as he may have received through a New York gallery. It’s important to note that Yarde’s work had received recognition within the New York art world. Watercolor Artist magazine reported that, in the 1970s, Yarde had the opportunity to be included in a Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Yarde, like many other artists, protested the lack of African-American curators at the Whitney and he was subsequently excluded from the exhibition. 

Today, many of Yarde’s paintings are in private collections or in small college and university collections in the region.

Yarde’s Artistic Importance

One of the most important things to know about Yarde is that he innovated watercolor painting. Previously, the medium had been used for small, intimate paintings and Yarde pushed watercolor into the terrain of vibrant large-scale paintings. He created his own unique style by employing large sheets of watercolor paper and, at times, extending his images beyond a single sheet.  

Perhaps influenced by the segmented construction of quilts that his mother made, he painted compositions with a grid-like, fragmented style. Additionally, Yarde repeatedly tilts the images in his works. One explanation for Yarde’s use of angles is that he adopted this technique based on his experience in the darkroom developing black and white photographs. Yarde’s godfather, Amos Gibson, owned a commercial photo studio and Yarde often worked with him. During the photographic development process, the image that’s emerging isn’t straight; it is sort of floating around in the chemical tray. The tilting of the images in his paintings may have been a way Yarde used to approximate that irregular positioning.

Thematically, Yarde’s career was largely centered on African-American history, particularly figures and events of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Both eras were before Yarde’s time, but some experts have suggested that as the African-American community of Roxbury in Boston began to deteriorate, Yarde was nostalgic for a bygone time. In his work, Yarde often used photographs as his inspiration. His 1978 work, The Sitting references James Van Der Zee’s famous 1924 photograph, Garveyite Family that was taken in Van Der Zee’s studio in Harlem, New York. Among some of Yarde’s celebrity subjects are Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and Malcolm X. Yarde uses Malcolm X’s (then Malcolm Little’s) 1944 police mugshot as the reference photograph. 

In the early 1990s, Yarde suffered from kidney disease brought on by the hypertension medicine he had taken for years. His illness is responsible for a marked shift in his subject matter. He moved away from the historical topics that he’d created the prior three decades to meditations on mortality, healing and Afro Diasporic spirituality. Two works that best depict this change are Mojo Hands and his Ring Shout series.

Mojo Hands (1995-1996) references the fundamentalist Christian prayer ritual of the “laying of hands” and links it to traditional African spiritual practices. Believers contend that the sick can be healed when prayer is administered while their hands are placed on the patient’s body. Yarde received solace from the “laying of hands” while he was waiting for a kidney transplant. 

Yarde’s Ring Shout series (2000) takes its name from a religious worship ceremony developed by enslaved Blacks that is composed of dance, song, and percussion. During the “Ring Shout,” the group of worshipers move counterclockwise around a central space, clapping, chanting, and stomping. Yarde’s circular compositions emulate the movements of the “Ring Shout” through a mosaic of irregular rectangles. The works are painted in a range of blues, and the repetition echoes the pulse of a dance.

R. Michelson Galleries represented Yarde throughout the 1990s, and its founder believes Yarde will leave a lasting impression on the art world. He stated at Yarde’s memorial service, “I think Richard is one of the premier artists of his generation and a true American voice.” Michaelson added, “His Savoy dancers and his later, more personal paintings are destined to only grow in stature, as they become more widely known.”


Work By Richard Yarde Available For Acquisition Through BAIA

Pageant (1981) 59 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches, watercolor, signed in pencil, 1981, framed

A larger version of Pageant (dated 1983) is part of the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was donated to the museum by the Boston law firm, Choate, Hall and Stewart.

Framed: 106.7 × 141 × 5.1 cm (42 × 55 1/2 × 2 in.)

Sheet: 96.5 × 129.5 cm (38 × 51 in.) Watercolor on five joined sheets of paper

Signed in pencil l.r.: “Yarde  (Available Here)

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YvonneYVONNE BYNOE is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a cultural critic, author of several popular books on popular culture.


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