A neglected oil painting that was thought for decades to be by an unknown artist has been identified as the work of the celebrated African American sculptor Richmond Barthé.
The subject of Seated Man in a Landscape has also been named as Lucian Levers, who was employed as Barthé’s domestic helper at the artist’s studio and home in Jamaica. It is unusual for black sitters in historic portraits to be identified, chiefly because of 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.
Barthé’s portrait of Levers, painted in the mid-20th century, was probably either bought by Peregrine Cust, the 6th Baron Brownlow, who owned a home in Jamaica as well as Belton House, or was given to him by the artist.
It was re-examined as part of a project by the trust to review works in its custody that depict black people or that may have connections to slavery or colonialism.
“It was interesting because it’s one of the few examples of a painting of an autonomous black sitter, and because it was signed. It piqued my interest,” said Alice Rylance-Watson, an assistant curator at the trust.
The signature had been wrongly transcribed in the trust’s catalogues. When she was able to see the painting in person last autumn, Rylance-Watson swiftly corrected the attribution to Barthé. It was an exciting moment, she said.
The identification of Levers was facilitated by a 2008 monograph on Barthé by the art historian Margaret Rose Vendryes, which included a photograph of the artist’s domestic helper.
Rylance-Watson said Levers became a favourite model of Barthé’s, appearing in several paintings and sculptures. “It has been fantastic to update the historical record to formally acknowledge both the creator of Seated Man and its sitter for the first time.”
Barthé was born in Mississippi in 1901. He left school at 14 to do domestic and handyman work, drawing in his spare time. His local community raised funds for him to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then one of only two art schools that accepted black students.
He studied painting, but later found success as a sculptor. In the late 1940s he moved to Jamaica, where he lived for around 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 aren’t many Barthé paintings in either public or private collections. Seated Man is really quite rare,” Rylance-Watson said.
The painting was worked on by specialist conservators before going on display. Part of the outer frame was missing, the paint had sustained abrasions and losses, and a small area had been overpainted.
The National Trust will be screening a video alongside the painting, in which contemporary black artists, including Eugene Ankomah and Quilla Constance, reflect on Barthé’s influence and legacy.