If you've ever visited Fallingwater, you may have noticed an outdoor sculpture of the actress Rose McClendon in a prayerful pose. Made by Richmond Barthé in 1932, it is one of several portraits that he made of African-American theatrical celebrities, including Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. That "Rose McClendon" is at Fallingwater is not insignificant. Barthé claimed that he was a guest at the house and that it helped him to focus and create. Later in life, he kept a large photo of Fallingwater on a wall in his small Pasadena apartment.
Also at Fallingwater is a small portrait bust by Barthé of Edgar Kaufmann Jr. While this piece is not included in the August Wilson Center for African American Culture exhibition Richmond Barthé: His Life in Art, a portrait bust of W. Frank Purdy is. On loan from Fallingwater, the sculpture is displayed next to a letter from the Fallingwater archives in which Purdy, then an art dealer in New York, mentions Barthé's work to Kaufmann — further evidence of the acclaim Barthé achieved in his early career.
Educated at the School of the Art Institute, Barthé had his first exhibition in Chicago in 1930. His work was championed by Alain Leroy Locke, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Combining classical and modernist features, Barthé's sculptures were collected by museums, and he earned several important public commissions. He was among the first African-American sculptors to achieve critical acclaim, but after he moved to Jamaica, in 1947, he was largely forgotten in the U.S. Returning in 1976, he settled in Pasadena, Calif., where he was befriended and supported by people who recognized his importance to American art, such as artist Charles White, actor James Garner and art historian Samella Lewis, the curator of the Wilson Center exhibition.
In his work, Barthé was interested in capturing not only the material but also the spiritual essence of his subjects. Some of the sculptures, such as "Stevedore" and "Feral Benga," are easily recognizable from reproductions, but in person they are exquisite, capturing both the delicacy and fortitude of the body in motion. While this exhibition is not large, it contains many pieces from private collections that you are not likely to see again. So be sure to see them now.