Neglected oil painting identified as work by Richmond Barthé | Paint
A neglected oil painting, thought for decades to be the work of an unknown artist, has been identified as the work of famed African-American sculptor Richmond Barthé.
The subject of Seated Man in a Landscape was also named Lucian Levers, who was employed as Barthé’s domestic helper in the artist’s studio and home in Jamaica. It is unusual for black models in historical portraits to be identified, mainly due to a lack of documentation.
The painting will go on display for the first time on Thursday at Belton House, a Grade I listed country house in Lincolnshire now owned by the National Trust, to mark Black History Month.
The portrait of Barthé de Levers, painted in the mid-20th century, was probably either purchased by Peregrine Cust, 6th Baron Brownlow, who owned a house in Jamaica as well as Belton House, or was gifted to him by the artist.
It has been reexamined as part of a trust project to examine works in its care that depict black people or that may have links to slavery or colonialism.
“It was interesting because it’s one of the rare examples of painting of a free-standing black sitter, and because it was signed. It piqued my curiosity,” said Alice Rylance-Watson, assistant curator at the trust.
The signature had been incorrectly transcribed in the trust’s catalogues. When she got to see the painting in person last fall, Rylance-Watson quickly corrected the attribution to Barthé. It was an exciting time, she said.
Levers’ identification was aided by a 2008 monograph on Barthé by art historian Margaret Rose Vendryes, which included a photograph of the artist’s domestic helper.
Rylance-Watson said Levers became a favorite model for Barthé, appearing in several paintings and sculptures. “It’s been fantastic to update the historical record to officially recognize both Seated Man’s creator and role model for the first time.”
Barthé was born in Mississippi in 1901. He left school at the age of 14 to do domestic work and handyman, drawing in his spare time. His local community raised money for him to attend school at the Art Institute of Chicago, then one of only two art schools to accept black students.
He studied painting, but later found success as a sculptor. In the late 1940s he moved to Jamaica, where he lived for about two decades. He struggled to make money from his paintings and often destroyed his work or gave it away. He died in California in 1989.
“There are not many paintings by Barthé in public or private collections. The seated man is really quite rare,” Rylance-Watson said.
The painting was worked on by specialized restorers before being exhibited. Part of the exterior frame was missing, the paint had suffered abrasions and loss, and a small area had been repainted.
The National Trust will screen a video alongside the painting, in which contemporary black artists including Eugene Ankomah and Quilla Constance will reflect on Barthé’s influence and legacy.