Is this a Richmond Barthe sculpture?
The photo showed a bust of a little girl with ringlets in her hair, her fingers laced together in prayer, her head tilted toward her maker, her face serious. It was a terracotta piece signed BARTHE (although I could barely see the “E” in the name).
It had come to me in an email from a reader who had apparently stumbled upon one of the many blog posts I’d done about artists. I’d never written much, though, about Richmond Barthe, an African American artist whose works reached critical acclaim in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I am in possession of a bust of a praying girl made by Richmond Barthe,” the reader, who lives in Belgium, said in his email. “I would like to know if there is more than one of these is made … It is a beauty of a bust.”
Since Barthe had lived in Switzerland, Spain and Italy during the 1960s, he wondered if the piece – of a Caucasian girl – had been created there.
Always intrigued by art, I wondered, too, if it were a sculpture by Barthe. I didn’t recall seeing any terracotta pieces by him either at auction, on the web or in books, but I’m not so familiar with any artist that I’ll dismiss pieces that don’t represent their style.
So I began the research to figure out if this was truly a Barthe sculpture, but I could find nothing on the web like it among his works. Most of his figures were bronze, although some were plaster painted to look like bronze.
I found photos of such Barthe works as “Boxer (1942),” “African Dancer (1933),” “Blackberry Woman (1932)” and “Boy With A Flute (1939).” These were slender sculptures – unlike the chunkiness of the reader’s piece – that showed the ripples of muscles and the imprint of bodies. That was more Barthe’s style.
Finding no figure like the reader’s terracotta girl, I decided that I needed to seek advice from scholars who knew his work. I contacted art experts at one well-known gallery, along with Margaret Rose Vendryes, an independent scholar who wrote the 2008 book “Barthe: A Life in Sculpture.” She responded to my inquiry:
“This is more than likely by a French sculptor by that name. It’s not the first work I’ve seen by another Barthe or the attribution was scratched on the surface later. Richmond Barthé did have a few things cast in clay, but most that did not make it to the foundry were cast by the artist in plaster and then painted to look like bronze or, in one instance, marble. He did not make any sculpture during his short first visit to Europe in 1934 and did very little while there in the early 1970s because of illness.
I think this collector should take the time to look for another artist. No one who collects Richmond Barthé would mistake this for his work.”
Vendryes said that her book is “full of images to help folks identify Barthé’s style and know about his life.”
Richmond “Jimmie” Barthe was born in Mississippi in 1901, and was raised by his mother after his father died at an early age, according to a biography accompanying a 2009 exhibition of his works curated by the artist Samella Lewis. His mother would give him a marking pencil and paper to keep him busy at home while she went off to work, according to Lewis, who knew the artist.
As a child, he drew people he saw on the streets, along with birds and other animals. At age 12, his work was shown at the county fair in Mississippi, and at age 18 while living in New Orleans, he won a blue ribbon at another county fair. With the help of a Catholic priest, he was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924 and set out on a career as a painter. At the suggestion of an anatomy instructor, he began modeling in clay and from then on, sculpture became his forte, according to the Lewis bio.
Barthe later moved to New York and his star rose quickly during the 1930s. He opened a studio in Harlem, and hobnobbed with the artists, writers and other literati of the Harlem Renaissance. He was doing solo shows in New York, working on commissions and watching as his works became part of the collections of some of the city’s major museums, including the Whitney. In 1934, he went to Europe but only stayed there for about a year or so.
Although many of his sculptures depicted people of color, Barthe, who was gay, didn’t seem to see himself as a black artist, as Lewis noted in the bio:
“Art is not racial.” Barthe said. “For me there is no Negro art – only art. I have not limited myself to Negro subjects. It makes no difference in my approach to the subject matter whether I am to model a Scandinavian or an African Dancer. For instance, I selected a young Negro as my model for the marble head, “Jimmie,” because of his particularly engaging smile. If he had been white and had the same smile, I’d have chosen him just as readily.”
In 1949, Barthe moved to Jamaica when his health started to deteriorate, and lived there for two decades before spending five years in Europe and finally settling in California. He was nearly destitute, and actor James Garner became his benefactor. Barthe died in 1989.
One of Barthe’s famous and early pieces, Feral Benga, is coming up for auction Feb. 14 at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. This is a 1989 cast of the original bronze sculpture, which was completed in 1935. The piece is estimated by Swann at $20,000-$30,000.
My answer to the reader with the bust signed BARTHE is that, unfortunately, his piece is not a Richmond Barthe sculpture. But the hunt to solve the mystery was in itself thrilling.
If you recognize this terracotta piece, please drop me a line in the Comment box below.