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Barthe
Richmond Barthe: His Life in Art
Published: Monday, February 07, 2011

Opening Sunday, February 6 at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum Richmond Barthe: His Life in Art will bring to the Research Triangle community works by the first modern African American sculptor to garner substantial critical success. Museum Director Kenneth G. Rodgers says "Without question Richmond Barthe was the most important sculptor of African American Modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. We are excited to exhibit a body of work that epitomized the Harlem Renaissance’s contribution to American art. ”

Born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1909, Barthe never knew his father who died at the age of twenty-two when Richmond was only one month old. An early influence in her son's artistic development, Barthe's mother, he recalled, often gave him his favorite toys—a marking pencil and paper—to entertain him during her busy periods while she worked. By the age of twelve, his work was getting attention and he was showing at County Fairs in Mississippi. After winning a first prize—a blue ribbon for a drawing he sent to the County Fair—he came to the attention of Lyle Saxon, who tried unsuccessfully, to register Barthe in a New Orleans art school. The refusal was based on Barthe's race, rather than a lack of creative ability.

With the aid of a Catholic priest, Barthe, with less than a high school education and no formal training in art, was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924. During his four-year stay at the Institute he pursued a career as a painter. During the last year of his study at the Art Institute, Barthe's anatomy teacher, suggested that in order to gain a better understanding of the third dimension in his painting, Barthe should try modeling in clay. Using two of his classmates as models, he followed his teacher's advice and sculpted two heads. From this point forward Barthe would abandon painting and only produce sculpture.

 In February, 1929, following his graduation from The Art Institute of Chicago, Barthe moved to New York where he began to rise to stardom as a sculptor. During the next two decades he would build a reputation that would prove to be the envy of many of his peers. The 1930s and 1940s would see him rise to greater prominence. No other sculptor in the United States during this period received higher praise for his work by critics or more visibility in the New York press. His reputation as a sculptor was generally known in Harlem and was acclaimed by philosopher/art critic Alain Locke, who praised his sculpture and regarded it as fresh and vibrant.

During his first year in New York, Barthe complet­ed approximately thirty-five sculptures. By 1934, his reputation was so well established that he was awarded his first solo show at the Caz Delbo Galleries in New York City. His exhibitions and commissions were numerous. Additions to permanent collections, such as the Whitney Museum— "African Dancer," "Blackberry Woman," and"Comedian," and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—"The Boxer"—seemed common­place. Commissions included a bas relief of Arthur Brisbane for Central Park, a commission for a huge 8' x 80' frieze of "Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho," for the Harlem River Housing Project and the largest commission of his career, the public monument to Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti.

Richmond Barthe did not believe that race should determine what an artist should produce. He did, however, feel that his race was an advan­tage in his rise to fame. In New York Barthe experienced success after success. He was considered by writers and crit­ics as one of the leading "moderns" of his time. The busy, tense environment in which he found himself took its toll, and he decided to abandon his life of fame at the peak of his career and move to Jamaica, West Indies. Barthe remained in Jamaica for twenty productive years. Almost forgotten in New York art circles, his reputation flourished in Jamaica. He remained there until the mid-1960s when the rampant violence that Barthe had left in Manhattan began to occur in Jamaica. Richmond Barthe spent the next five years of his life in Switzerland, Spain and Italy before settling in Pasadena, California.  Barthe met the actor James Garner in 1978 and found a kindred spirit. Garner became Barthe’s benefactor, funding the artist’s health care and keeping hisbills current for the remainder of his life.

Included in the exhibition are numerous portrait busts, and free-standing figurative works, some of which were enlarged and are today located around the world. Among the busts are images of African American luminaries Paul Robeson, Mary McCloud Bethune and Josephine Baker. Among the figurative works in the exhibition, visitors will be able to see Feral Benga, Inner Music, Stevedore andAthlete Resting among others. In each of them Barthe realizes a basic and characteristic rhythm and presents poses with a sense of suspended motion. There is an almost uncanny emphasis, even in their heads, on symbolic line.

The North Carolina Central University Art Museum is located on Lawson Street across from the Farrison-Newton Communications Building. Every effort is made to make all museum events accessible to the handicapped. For general information or assistance, please call 560-6211. For group visits, please call in advance. The Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

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