James Richmond Barthé was born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippito Richmond Barthé and Marie Clementine Robateau. When James was just a few months old, his father passed away at 22, leaving his mother, a dressmaker, to raise him alone. Before Barthé began elementary school, she married William Franklin, and in time had five more children.
From an early age, Barthé proved to have a passion and skill for illustrating. His mother was influential in his choice to pursue art as a career. Barthé once said: “When I was crawling on the floor, my mother gave me paper and pencil to play with. It kept me quiet while she did her errands. At six years old I started painting. A lady my mother sewed for gave me a set of watercolors. By that time, I could draw very well.”
Throughout his youth, Barthé illustrated, with the enthusiastic support of his teachers, in particular Inez Labat, a fourth-grade teacher from Bay St. Louis public school. Labat helped encourage and shape his artistic and aesthetic growth. At just twelve years old, Barthé had an exhibition of his work at the Bay St. Louis country fair.
Unfortunately, when he was 14, Barthé came down with typhoid fever and had to drop out of school. After his bout with typhoid, he worked as a houseboyand handyman; however, he couldn’t get away from drawing in his spare time.
An affluent family, the Ponds, spent summers at Bay St. Louis and asked Barthé to work for them as a houseboy in New Orleans, Louisiana. Through his work with the Ponds, he expanded his cultural perspectives and knowledge of art and met Lyle Saxon, a writer for the Times-Picayune. Saxon was battling the racist system of school segregation and tried to get Barthé registered in an art school in New Orleans.
In 1924, Barthé donated his first oil painting to a local Catholic church to be auctioned at a benefit. Amazed by his talent, Reverend Harry F. Kane urged him to pursue his artistic career and raised money for him to embark on studies in fine art. At age 23, with less than a high school education and no proper training in art, Barthé applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago and was accepted by the latter.
Barthé embarked on a program structured for majors in painting and lived with his aunt Rose while working odd jobs. His artwork caught the attention of Dr. Charles Maceo Thompson, a patron of the arts and devotee of many talented young Black artists. Barthé was a pleasing portrait painter, and Dr. Thompson aided him in securing many beneficial commissions from the city’s wealthy Black citizens.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, Barthé’s conventional artistic instruction in sculpture took place in anatomy class with German artist Charles Schroeder, a professor of anatomy. To obtain a better sense of the three-dimensional form, students modeled in clay. This was to be, according to Barthé’, a turning point in his career, altering his attention from painting to sculpture.
His first appearance as a professional sculptor was at The Negro in Art Week exhibition in 1927 while still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also participated in the April 1928 annual exhibition of the Chicago Art League. The critical acclaim allowed him to obtain numerous important commissions such as the busts of Henry O. Tanner (1928) and Toussaint L’Ouverture (1928). Now in his late 20s, it took little time for him to win recognition, largely through his sculpture and for making meaningful contributions to modern African American art. By 1929, with the essentials of his artistic education complete, he opted to leave Chicago and move to New York City.
During the Great Depression, several artists found it extremely difficult to earn a living via their artworks; however, the 1930s were Richmond Barthé’s most prolific years. Moving from the Art Institute of Chicago to New York City during the height of the Harlem Renaissance opened him to new experiences. In 1930, he founded his studio in Harlem upon winning the Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship at his first solo exhibition at the Women’s City Club in Chicago.
In 1931, he relocated his studio in Harlem to Greenwich Village. He’s quoted as saying: “I live downtown because it is much more convenient for my contacts from whom it is possible for me to make a living.” He recognized the significance of public relations and staying in touch with collectors’ interests.
Barthé intermingled with the bohemian crowds of downtown Manhattan. At first, being unable to afford live models, he took inspiration from on-stage performers. Living downtown offered him the chance to mingle not only among collectors, but also among artists, dance performers, and actors. His extraordinary visual memory allowed him to work with no models, creating various depictions of the human body in movement. During this time, his accomplished works included Black Narcissus (1929), The Blackberry Woman (1930), Drum Major (1928), The Breakaway (1929), The Deviled Crab-Man (1929), as well as busts of Alain Locke (1928) and A’leila Walker (1928).
Barthé was interviewed once, where he revealed that he was gay.During his life, he had special, passionate relationships that were brief. In a dateless letter to Alain Locke, he disclosed that he needed a long-term relationship with a “Negro friend and a lover”. The book Barthé: A Life in Sculpture by Margaret Rose Vandryes,romantically connects him to writer Lyle Saxon, Locke (the African American art critic), young sculptor John Rhoden, and the photographer Carl Van Vechten. According to a letter from Locke to Richard Bruce Nugent, he had a romantic relationship with Nugent ( a cast member from the production of Porgy & Bess).
Barthé was tired of New York and established a home in Jamaica. He left that country in 1970, moving to Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. In 1977, he returned to the U.S., moving to Pasadena (California) close to a sister who was in nearby San Francisco. Now poor and aging, the man whose sculpture of an eagle sits outside of the Washington Social Security Building, couldn’t get Social Security.
His work was still exhibited and in 1981, Santa Monica featured it as part of a special exhibition. While he lived in Pasadena, an advocate came in the unlikely form of the actor James Garner. The two became close friends and upon seeing his plight, Garner began paying his rent and medical bills.
In humility and great appreciation, Barthé created a bust of Garner, which is thought to be his last sculpture. After a few years of illness, James Richmond Barthédied on March 6, 1989.
As with many of us who gave our best, James Richmond Barthé is proof that…
we were there, we’re present now, and will always be…
I invite you to watch actual video footage of Richmond Barthe at work.
Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.
Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).
A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter. A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books. Additionally, Hartsel hascharted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.
Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me. There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”
According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth). This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”
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