Narratives of African American Art and Identity

Richmond Barthé

Untitled (Head of a Man) , c. 1935

Terra cotta

4" x 1" x 1"

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By the late 1930s, sculptor Richmond Barthé had become the most widely exhibited African American artist in the United States. Although he chose not to limit himself to the depiction of a particular race or theme, his dignified portrayals of African American men and women were a source of pride within the African American arts community.

Barthé created his first sculptures in 1928, during his senior year at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although he enrolled in the program with the intention of becoming a painter, his advisor, German artist Charles Shroeder, suggested that Barthé try his hand at modeling as an exercise to increase his skill at painting in three dimensions. Barthé followed his professor's advice and created his first two sculpture busts, which he modeled from the images of two of his friends. These works were so well received that the organizers of Chicago's Negro Art Week commissioned Barthé to create two busts, the head of artist Henry O. Tanner and Haitian general Toussaint L'Ouverture. From 1929 to the end of his career, Barthé continued to model positive and diverse images of Africans and African Americans such as Masai, 1933; Boxer, 1942; Black Madonna, 1961; and Paul Robeson as Othello, 1975.

Barthé's miniature sculptural head of an unidentified African American man visually attests to his facility for sensitively modeling African American features and expressions. Its unusually diminutive size also demonstrates his ability to work competently in a variety of scales and materials.   T. F.


David Driskell
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II. Emergence
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Richmond Barthé biography

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