Richmond Barthé (1901-1989), born in Mississippi, studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago where he was introduced to sculpture in his senior year. In 1929 he moved to Harlem, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where he entered an established network of gay social circles. Although he never publicly revealed his homosexuality, his artwork exploited the black male nude for its political, racial, aesthetic, and erotic significance, and often displayed homoerotic themes.
In 1931, Barthé moved his studio to 236 West 14th Street (façade since altered) to be closer to his racially and economically diverse male and female customers and friends. His most important supporters were lifelong friends, writer Alain Locke and poet Richard Bruce Nugent, who was also his one-time lover. He was also friends with poets Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, cabaret performer Jimmie Daniels, playwright Harold Jackman, photographer Carl Van Vechten, writer Lincoln Kirstein, and artists Paul Cadmus and Jared French.
Barthe’s largest work, the cast-stone frieze Green Pastures: The Walls of Jericho (1938), was originally intended for the Harlem River Houses (1936-37), one of the nation’s first federal public housing projects, that was built for African Americans. He was recruited as part of a team of sculptors commissioned to create public art for the project through the Works Progress Administration. Barthé was interested in creating a site-specific work for the back wall of an amphitheater that would be used by African-American residents. The frieze was inspired by Marc Connelly’s 1930 Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Green Pastures, which portrays episodes from the Old Testament through the eyes of a young African-American child. This was Barthé’s first work in relief and he depicted scenes of African-inspired figures in two 40-foot stylized panels that he titled Exodus and Dance.
“All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man.”
Months after the Harlem River Houses were opened, Barthé’s panels were still in storage since the amphitheater project was never built. As a federal employee, he had no control over what was done with his work and in 1941 the panels were installed without his consultation on one of the main walks at the Kingsborough Houses. Barthé was disappointed since, although low-income federal housing, African Americans were not the primary residents and therefore he felt the inspirational power of his work was diminished. Today, residents fondly refer to the work as “The Wall.”
Barthé’s other public works in New York City include the bas-relief effigy on the Arthur Brisbane Monument, located at Central Park’s Fifth Avenue perimeter wall (at East 101st Street), and the busts of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington at the Hall of Great Americans, located on the grounds of Bronx Community College. He had numerous celebrities and notables as clients and his portrait busts include Katharine Cornell as Juliet (1942), featuring the actress Katharine Cornell, and cabaret performer Jimmie Daniels. Today, Barthé is represented in the permanent collections of numerous major museums.
In 1947 he moved to Jamaica in the West Indies where he remained until the mid-1960s and then afterwards lived in Europe. Barthé returned to the US in 1977 where he settled in Pasadena, CA. He soon developed a friendship with the actor James Garner who became Barthé’s benefactor and advocate, helping him copyright his works.