A sculptor often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Richmond Barthé focused on the human form and on capturing both everyday and iconic members of the African American community. His sculptures are often noted for their sense of fluid motion and sensuality.
James Richmond Barthé was born in Bay St. Louis on 28 January 1901. His father died soon thereafter, and his mother, Marie Clementine Robateau Barthé, supported the family by sewing. While at work she often gave paper and pencil to the toddler to occupy him, and she raised her son a devout Catholic. Spirituality, race, and sexuality influenced his later art.
During his grade school years Barthé’s family, teacher, and priest all began to take note of his advanced drawing and painting talent, yet his Creole descent meant that Barthé was barred from pursuing formal art education. At age fourteen Barthé took a job as houseboy with a prominent white family in New Orleans. There, noted figures such as writer and editor Lyle Saxon encouraged the boy’s art and lobbied art schools on his behalf, to no avail. Determined to help, his patrons secured his admission to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924.
Barthé’s painted portraits soon earned him notice from important collectors. During his senior year, he took a sculpture class to better understand perspective, and he subsequently pursued that medium. In 1928 his sculptures were included in the Chicago Art League’s Negro in Art Week, which led to his first professional commissions and to the promise of a solo exhibition.
Barthé moved to New York City in 1929 and quickly became part of the well-established Harlem Renaissance scene. In 1930 he won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and in 1933–34 his work was shown at both the Chicago World’s Fair and New York’s Whitney Museum. The latter purchased several of his works and helped establish his reputation as the country’s leading African American sculptor. Barthé remained in New York for nearly two decades, during which time the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums acquired his work and he won Guggenheim Fellowships in 1941 and 1942. Barthé’s subjects were people who represented the everyday African American experience as well as noted celebrities such as Josephine Baker, George Washington Carver, John Gielgud, and Paul Robeson. His patrons and friends also included Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Van Vechten, and Langston Hughes.
Barthé’s sculptures frequently focus on the human form in motion, and he applied classical influence to representations of African American life. Barthé broadened the formal art world’s tendency to depict African Americans as agricultural laborers. For example, with The Negro Mother he used the classical pietà form to depict an African American mother holding the body of her lynched son. His sculpting of African American male nudes bestowed the classical ideal on bodies that had been excluded from such consideration. His most famous bronze, The Boxer, is a lean, graceful representation of Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate in midswing.
Barthé’s sculptures also reflected his personal experience. As the creations of a gay black man with strong religious convictions, The Negro Mother and other works not only engaged his spirituality but represented the pain associated with his life. The Boxer served as sensual representation of a black male frozen in a complex, perpetual fight. Scholars note that Barthé was at times torn between images and expectations. For example, his mostly white clientele often considered him a race man because of his subjects, while some of his African American counterparts labeled him an Uncle Tom because of his clientele.
Barthé left New York in the 1940s and completed several commissions, including the Toussaint-Louverture Monument and General Dessalines Monument for the Haitian government, before spending almost twenty years in Jamaica and several years in Europe. During Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 Barthé was invited back to Bay St. Louis, which held a public celebration in his honor and at which the town’s white mayor gave him the key to the city.
In 1977 the University of Southern Mississippi bought two of Barthé’s artworks, and he was honored by the governor of Mississippi. He died in Pasadena, California, on 5 March 1989: the street where he lived was renamed Barthé Drive. His work continues to be exhibited in and beyond Mississippi.
- Patti Carr Black, American Masters of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: George Ohr, Dusti Bongé, Walter Anderson, Richmond Barthé (2009)
- Margaret Rose Vendryes, Barthé: A Life in Sculpture (2008)