Richard Barthé is an artist that inspires me. He was a sculptor known for his graceful and sensitive sculptures of African-Americans, and for portrait sculpture and capture of dramatic moments. Poised and the possessor of an ability to move within numerous social circles, Barthé was one of the first African-American artists of his time to support himself completely as a professional artist. His work had and continues to have universal appeal and popularity.
One of my favorite Barthé sculptures is “ The Boxer.” The piece was created in 1942. It depicts the image of a muscular lean boxer and gracefulness of a ballet dancer. Consistent with his other works, “The Boxer” captures a dramatic moment.
Richmond “Jimmie” Barthéwas born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1901. His father died while he was an infant, and his mother supported the family through her sewing until she married William Franklin, a workingman and musician. At an early age, Barthé displayed artistic ability, and his mother and her employers supported his talents. He moved to New Orleans to live and work with a wealthy family, where he associated with writers and others who encouraged both his social and artistic development. His painting Christ for a church festival caught the eye of the Catholic Reverend Jack Kane, who inquired into local schools to see if they would accept Black students. With this option not being available, Kane funded Barth’s studies at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924-1928.
In Chicago Barthé changed his focus from painting to sculpture, and Barthé received recognition early on when his work appeared in The Crisis and he was offered an one-man show in New York. Barthé declined the show to further hone his skills by studying in 1929 at the Art Students League in New York. Barthé won honorable mention in the 1929 Harmon exhibition. He returned in 1930 to Chicago and was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship based on the strength of his first exhibition at the Chicago Women’s City Club. The following year he held a one-man show in New York at Caz-Delbo gallery and enjoyed critical praise.
Barthé moved permanently to New York after his successful solo show, and continued to earn accolades and exhibition opportunities. In 1934 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Xavier University, and The Whitney Museum exhibited and purchased several of his sculptures. He had opportunities to exhibit in Europe and his work is part of several private collections internationally. In 1937 the Treasury Public Works of Art Project, and Guggenheim fellowships awarded him a commission in both 1940 and 1941. During World War II, Barthé created one of his best-known works, the monumental sculpture of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.
Post World War II values and concepts in art separated Barthé from contemporary art movements, such as abstract expressionism. His figurative sculptures of people of African descent were no longer in vogue, and Barthé began to experience a decline in demand for his work. However, institutions such as the Whitney were still purchasing his sculptures when he turned to creating sculptural portraits of movie stars in dramatic character roles. The new works were not received well by art critics, and Barthé eventually moved to Jamaica to continue his work. There, he experienced renewed interest in his work in the 1960s and moved briefly to Europe from 1969 through the late 70s.
Barthé spent his final years in California, and as his health declined artists and admirers such as Charles and Francis White, and the actor James Garner supported him. Barthé died in 1989.