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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Richmond Barthe

Richmond Barthe at work on his sculpture
of Toussaint l'Ouverture, 1950.
Success in life is a three-legged stool--talent, hard work, and persistence. Take away any of those three and the enterprise tumbles. Art is no different, with the possible exception having to do with the quantity of the other three. Of course ones definition of "success" is a factor as well, but that's true of any goal. Let me give you an example--Richmond Barthe. He was born on the gulf coast, in the small port community of bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1901. He was barely a month old when he was hit by one of the worst calamities which can befall a child. His 22-year-old father died. His mother took the boy to New Orleans where, as early as the fourth grade, his artistic talent was noticed and encouraged by his parish priest. By the time he was twelve, young Richmond was displaying his work at county fairs. As a teenager he worked as a houseboy and continued to develop his portrait skills, donating his work to various charities in helping with their fundraising efforts. His future as an artist looked bright, except for one problem. It was 1919 and Richmond Barthe was black.

Africa Awakening, 1959, Richmond Barthe
At the time, there were no black art schools in the south and few anywhere else accepting aspiring artists such as Richmond. It took the combined efforts of his priest as well as Lyle Saxon, an activist writer for the Times Picayune, and several others in eventually persuading the Art Institute of Chicago to let the talented teenager, having no formal training nor high school diploma, attend classes there. During the next four years, Barthe majored in painting while working as a café busboy. The talent, hard work, and persistence came together as the graduating young artist came under the patronage of Dr. Charles Thompson, a patron of the arts, who helped Barthe land several lucrative commissions portraying members of the city's affluent black community. However, as important as these were, the turning point in Barthe's career was when his anatomy teacher urged him to begin modeling his portrait figures in clay. From that point on, Richmond Barthe gave up painting.

The Boxer, Kid Chocolate,
1942, Richmond Barthe
After graduation from AIC in 1928, Barthe moved to New York where he established a sculpture studio, obtained gallery representation, won several important awards, joined the Harlem Renaissance, and by 1934, had his first solo exhibit at the prestigious Caz Delbo Gallery, thus cementing his reputation as one of the city's most important sculptors. Though accepted into the National Sculpture Society in 1946, Barthe became disillusioned with the rapidly developing New York School and its non-representation proclivities. So he packed up his bags and moved to Jamaica where he worked for the next eighteen years until the growing violence there caused him to once more move on. For the next several years he lived and worked in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy before finally settling down in a small apartment in Pasadena, California. The city welcomed him by naming the street out front in his honor. In California, where he worked in semi-retirement on his memoirs, Barthe met and became friends with "Maverick"--James Garner. The Rockford Files actor helped support him financially until his death in 1989.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, 1952,
Richmond Barthe
It would be meaningless to crown Richmond Barthe as some kind of "greatest black sculptor" of the 20th century, or any other century, in fact (there simply weren't that many of them). For the same reason, placing him on a list of "top ten" black artists would be largely pointless. The greatness of an artist is best represented by his legacy. Barthe's legacy lies not in exalting his own work, but in uplifting that of leaders, movers, and shakers of his own race the world over. His 40-foot-tall monument to Toussaint l'Ouverture (top), the leader of the Haitian freedom movement, which stands in front of the presidential palace in Port au Prince, is said to be among Barthe's most outstanding works. His similar monument to Jean-Jacques Dessalines (right), one of Toussaint's generals, also occupies a place of honor in the capital city of the country they helped bring into existence. Other black leaders brought to life in bronze by Barthe include Booker T. Washington, actress, Rose McClendon, Cuban boxer, Kid Chocolate (above, left), and actor Paul Robeson. The list of his works also includes one actor not of his own race, his friend, James Garner (below).
James Garner as Maverick,
Richmond Barthe

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