African American artist Edward Bannister (1828-1901), though never afforded the opportunity of studying in a formal academic setting, earned praise and many honors for his New England landscape paintings.
Edward Bannister was a prominent New England landscape painter of the nineteenth century and enjoyed a career notable for the lack of prejudice with which it was judged. The African-American artist, though regretting to his death that he was not given a chance to study his art in a formal academic setting, nevertheless succeeded admirably and won great acclaim in his day. Sadly, most of his works did not survive the ages, but an essay on his work in A History of African-American Artists, from 1790 to the Present, described him as "a professional artist who lived by his painting. … Bannister painted primarily what he knew intimately—the somber blue-gray skies with breezy white cumulus clouds in the late afternoon and the hilly sweep of the Rhode Island landscape and its Narragansett dunes and shores."
Heritage Brought Good Fortune
Bannister was born in November of 1828 in Canada, a British colony that soon made the practice of indentured servitude illegal. His mother was of Scottish descent, his father a native of Barbados. The family lived in St. Andrews, a coastal village in New Brunswick, close to the border of Maine. Economic hardship came when Bannister reached the age of six and his father died; his mother later passed away when Edward was a teenager. After the death of his mother, he became a live-in servant for one of St. Andrews's more affluent citizens and his wife. When he left there, he joined the crew of a boat as a cook.
The sailing life suited Bannister well; he could supplement the adequate education he had received in St. Andrews with visits to museums and libraries in ports of call like Boston and New York. He eventually settled in Boston and took up the barber trade. With the introduction of the daguerreotype in the 1840s, a new market opened up in portraiture, and those with artistic skills were needed to tint these works, which were forerunners of the photograph. Bannister obtained a job doing so, but also continued to work as a barber. Through his profession he met his wife, Christiana Babcock Carteaux, an accomplished hairdresser and proprietor of two tony establishments in Providence and Boston. The couple married in 1857. His rendering of his wife is Bannister's only surviving portrait.
Won Acclaim with Earliest Artistic Endeavors
The new Mrs. Bannister encouraged her husband's artistic pursuits. Within a few years he had given up both barbering and tinting photographs and kept studio hours. He produced a number of paintings that were soon exhibited and sold around Boston. His efforts were also selected for group exhibitions at the Boston Art Club and Museum. Much of Bannister's artistic subject matter from this period was lifted from biblical themes, although he did execute portraits, landscapes, and scenes from history. He also received encouragement from other prominent African-Americans—and African-American artists—of the day. Yet Bannister felt his lack of formal training in the arts hindered him. In 1856 he attended lectures given by D. William Rimmer, a sculptor noted for his accuracy and verve in rendering the human figure. Soon Bannister and other artists began using the principles they had acquired from the lecture in drawing live figure models.
That same year, famed Boston artist William Morris Hunt returned from France. He brought with him a new style of landscape painting known as the Barbizon school, which Bannister soon adopted. "It was a style that permitted Bannister to express both his observation of and reverence for nature," noted A History of African-American Artists. This love of nature had been a preoccupation with the artist since his childhood in the fishing village of St. Andrews, and as an adult he came to consider nature itself as a holy entity. Such an attitude mirrored philosophical trends then gaining currency in New England, especially in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Bannister was also fortunate to reside in a city that was extremely tolerant. Boston was home to many African-Americans who were either born free or had escaped from slavery in the South. The city was the center of the abolitionist movement, where many of the most prominent opponents of slavery resided. Bannister's achievements as an artist were honored when he was still in his thirties. He was one of two artists included in the 1863 book The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. The Bannisters also became politically active during this Civil War period, enjoying particular success with a fundraising drive to address pay iniquities between black and white soldiers in the Union army. Christiana Bannister herself took part in the ceremonies sending off Massachusetts's first black regiment.
Achieved American Art's Highest Honor
In 1870 the Bannisters moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in part because of Christiana Bannister's connections there. The move allowed Bannister to more easily partake of the woods and natural landscapes just outside the town. He joined other prominent creative individuals in Providence in a building that housed numerous artists' studios. This period also marked an evolution in his subject matter, away from his usual biblical themes and toward more depictions of landscapes and shorelines. Around 1874 he visited a nearby farm to do some sketching, and from this he executed a painting he called Under the Oaks. He entered the work in the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the country's first national art exhibition. The art of American masters from both the past and present—such as John Singleton Copley and Frederick E. Church—were part of the famed exhibition as well. Bannister's work took the bronze medal, the highest honor awarded to oil paintings by the Centennial jury.
When Bannister heard a report that his work had taken the prize, he rushed to the Exposition and asked about it at the information desk, where he was treated rudely. "I was not an artist to them, simply an inquisitive colored man," he said in a conversation with a friend of his quoted in A History of African-American Artists." Controlling myself, I said deliberately, 'I am interested in the report that Under the Oaks has received a prize. I painted the picture.' An explosion could not have made a more marked impression. Without hesitation he apologized to me, and soon everyone in the room was bowing and scraping to me." After the Exposition, Under the Oaks was sold by an art dealer for $1,500, a large sum at the time. Unfortunately, its whereabouts (as well as that of the bronze medal) are unknown.
Integral Member of Local Arts Community
Bannister's success brought great civic pride to Providence and inspired its artistic community. A small group of prominent arts supporters soon founded the Rhode Island Museum of Art and School of Design in the city. A century later, the school remains one of the most prestigious art schools in the nation. In 1880 Bannister and a group of other artists chartered the Providence Art Club. It included both artists and supporters of the arts, and its first exhibition in the spring of that year hosted the work of 64 artists. Bannister's silhouette can still be seen in the building's portrait gallery of its founders. He participated in discussion groups and readings of academic papers at the club's regular meetings and was honored with the title "Artist Laureate." One colleague, according to A History of African-American Artists, described him as "a person of gentlemanly bearing who could enter and leave a room with ease and grace. He conversed with more than ordinary intelligence on the principal topics of the day and all deemed it a privilege to be in his company."
Bannister's hobbies included reading music, and sailing. His landscapes reflected the tranquillity of his personality. As his career matured, he accumulated other honors, including several from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, which put on an important Boston juried show every year. Meanwhile, his wife established a nursing home for elderly black women that was still in operation in 1993. Yet Bannister's—and the Barbizon— style of painting eventually passed out of favor and what became known as the Hudson School rose to prominence in American art. In addition to suffering financially later in life, Bannister was plagued by memory loss, which restricted his activities. He died of a heart attack at a prayer meeting among his congregation at the Elmwood Avenue Free Baptist Church on January 8, 1901. Later that year, his friends among Providence's artistic community erected a memorial boulder at his grave site containing a bronze palette, a replica of his favorite pipe, and a poetic inscription. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art praised Bannister as "the only major African American artist of the late nineteenth century who developed his talents without the benefit of European exposure."
Further Reading on Edward Mitchell Bannister
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists, from 1790 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993.
Perry, Regenia, Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992, p. 23.