RICHMOND BARTHÉ (d: 1989) was an African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance born on this date. He is best known for his portrayal of black subjects. The focus of his artistic work was portraying the diversity and spirituality of man. Barthé once said: “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.”
Barthé mingled with the bohemian circles of downtown Manhattan. Initially unable to afford live models, he sought and found inspiration from on-stage performers. Living downtown provided him the opportunity to socialize not only among collectors but also among artists, dance performers, and actors.
His remarkable visual memory permitted him to work without models, producing numerous representations of the human body in movement. During this time, he completed works such as Black Narcissus (1929), The Blackberry Woman (1930), Drum Major (1928), The Breakaway (1929), busts of Alain Locke (1928), bust of A’leila Walker (1928), The Deviled Crab-Man (1929), Rose McClendon (1932), Feral Benga (1935), and Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet (1935).
In October 1933, a major body of Barthé’s work inaugurated the Caz Delbo Galleries at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. That same year his works were also exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. In the summer of 1934, Barthé went on a tour to Paris with Reverend Edward F. Murphy, a friend of Reverend Kane from New Orleans, who exchanged his first class ticket for two third class tickets to share with Barthé. This trip exposed Barthé to classical art, but also to performers such as Feral Benga and African American entertainer Josephine Baker, of whom he made portraits in 1935 and 1951, respectively. During the next two decades, he built his reputation as a sculptor. He was awarded several awards and has experienced success after success and was considered by writers and critics as one of the leading “moderns” of his time. Among his African-American friends were Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Jimmie Daniels Countee Cullen and Harold Jackman. Ralph Ellison was his first student. His white supporters included Carl Van Vechten, Noel Sullivan, Charles Cullen, Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, Edgar Kaufman, Jr. and Jared French.
In 1947 he decided to abandon his life of fame and move to Jamaica in the West Indies. His career flourished in Jamaica and he remained there until the mid-1960s when ever-growing violence forced him to yet again move. For the next five years he lived in Switzerland. Spain, and Italy before eventually settling in Pasadena, California, in a rental apartment. In that apartment, Barthé worked on his memoirs and most importantly, editioned many of his works with the financial assistance of the actor James Garner until his death in 1989. Garner copyrighted Barthé’s artwork, hired a biographer to organize and document his work, and established the Richmond Barthe Trust.
Once, when interviewed, Barthé indicated that he was homosexual. Throughout his life, he had occasional romantic relationships that were short lived. In an undated letter to Alain Locke he indicated that he desired a long-term relationship with a “Negro friend and a lover”. The book Barthé: A Life in Sculpture, by Margaret Rose Vandryes, links Barthé to writer Lyle Saxon, to African American art critic Alain Locke, young sculptor John Rhoden, and photographer Carl Van Vechten. According to a letter from Alain Locke to Richard Bruce Nugent, Barthé had a romantic relationship with Nugent, a cast member from the production of Porgy and Bess.