Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) was never going to find it in Bay St. Louis, MS where he was born. Not during the peak years of the Jim Crow South. Not as a Black, gay man with a passion and talent for art.
New Orleans was better. The wealthy family he worked for supported his desire of pursuing an arts career, still, his race, sexuality and lack of education was unlikely to see him ever rise far beyond the domestic work he went there to perform as a child.
Not that Barthé wasn’t smart, reoccurring bouts of typhoid fever forced him to leave school before completing seventh grade.
His New Orleans employers put money together to send him to Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Barthé joined the Great Migration north.
That was 1924 and it was one of the few art schools in the country at the time accepting African American students. It was then and remains now one of the nation’s best art schools. Barthé was the only Black student there pursing a fine art degree at the time.
He had grander visions yet. At this time in America, for a young, genius, ambitious, Black creative, there was only one destination: Harlem.
Barthé moved east joining Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Augusta Savage and others in becoming a stalwart of the Harlem Renaissance, a Black cultural movement featuring dynamic creativity across music, literature, the visual arts and political thought.
In Harlem, Barthé’s talent supported himself as a professional artist from his late 20s for the remainder of his life. Doing so is a rare achievement in the 2020s, let alone the 1930s.
Commissions for portrait busts was his primary income. He was a master. He earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1940. In his thirties he sold works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He was one of the first Black artists to do so. Still, he was uncomfortable there. Racial discrimination persisted. Alienation.
Major commissions for a pair of public monuments in Port-au-Price dedicated to the leaders of the Haitian Revolution allowed him to abruptly pull up stakes and leave New York for Jamaica in 1948. He hoped the relaxed atmosphere of the Caribbean would finally soothe and settle him. It didn’t. He still felt isolated.
In 1969, he moved to Europe, spending 10 years in a variety of countries.
When the money ran out and his health began failing, friends convinced him to move back to America; Pasadena, CA. Here, a social circle which included artist Charles White and actor James Garner got him back on his feet, reestablishing Barthé as a major 20th century American artist.
The certainty, the comfort, the bullseye he found in his brilliant sculpture, seemed to elude Barthé in life. It is believed he never experienced romantic love. His wanderings across the world in search of new places to feel comfortable never brought him to his person, a person who could make him feel comfortable.
Complicating matters, from his upbringing, Barthé was a devout Roman Catholic. One can imagine the internal conflict the church’s anti-gay dogma caused him. Still, Barthé remained close to the church and the church supported him throughout his career.
Richmond Barthé’s sculpture can be seen during an exhibition on view through November 5, 2023, at the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center in Savannah, GA. Visitors will leave with few questions about his work. His life may prove another matter.
The presentation begins with Stevedore (1937), a powerful sculpture of a powerful man recalling Barthé’s time in New Orleans and figures he surely saw on the Mississippi River docks. The piece encapsulates much of his practice.
“Barthé studies in an academic tradition so he’s looking at Michelangelo and Donatello and these great Renaissance and ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of bodies and anatomy and he learns that and absorbs that, but then he finds his own set of stories in which to portray that that are either changing or completely outside that Renaissance and classical world,” Telfair Museums Chief Curator Alex Mann told Forbes.com. “It’s an art that is really speaking back to himself or to his community, thinking about what kinds of art his fellow African Americans would like to be seeing in museums and in the world around him. That’s where he’s really doing something new and different that fits perfectly with the Harlem Renaissance.”
Twenty-four works spanning Barthé’s entire career can be seen in the show, rare volume and breadth for an exhibition of sculpture. Portrait busts, full figures, religious imagery and prominent African American figures are on view. His interpretations of actor Paul Robeson as Othello and Josephine Baker stand out.
Exhibition wall text quotes Barthé as saying, “I hope my people will look into my works and see a reflection of themselves. I have been trying to uphold a mirror and say, ‘Look how beautiful you are.’”
Here’s hoping the artist took his own advice.