“Man is like a light bulb. It can only get light through the little wire that connects it directly with the power plant. So it has to go within itself for light. Man, like the light bulb, is connected to the universal mind, cosmic consciousness or God – whatever you want to call it – and the only way he can get help or inspiration is by going within himself and drawing on this power. This is where artists, poets, composers and scientists get their ideas and inspiration. It is the source of all knowledge. You just have to go within, relax and let it flow through you.”
An important modernist sculptor who was interested in the dynamism, energy and movement of the human body, Richmond Barthé was born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1901, and his artistic talents were recognized from an early age. Local acquaintances and a Catholic pastor pooled resources in order to send him to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924. At the Art Institute, Barthé began to model in clay after being introduced to sculpture by his anatomy instructor Charles Schroeder. In 1928, Barthé won a Rosenwald Fellowship, and he continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York City. He moved to Harlem in 1929, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where he entered an established network of gay social circles. His most important supporters were lifelong friends, writer Alain Locke and poet Richard Bruce Nugent. 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. Although Barthé 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.
Barthé spent the 1930s expanding and establishing his artistic career, aided by his participation in Harmon Foundation exhibitions in 1929, 1930, and 1931. In that decade he received numerous public and private commissions, including a Federal Arts Project commission at West Point and a Treasury Department commission for a frieze for the Harlem River Housing Project. In 1932, Barthé became the first black artist added to the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and in 1940, he was named a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow for study in Fine Arts. Barthé left New York in the 1940s and traveled to Jamaica, where he remained until the mid-1960s. Subsequent years were spent in Switzerland, Spain and Italy before settling in Pasadena, California where he died in 1989.