Edward Mitchell Bannister was the best-known landscape painter associated with Rhode Island in the late 1800s, and was the first African-American artist to win national recognition. At the Philadelphia World Centennial of 1876, Edward Bannister was the only New England artist to win a bronze medal.
Born and raised in the small seaport town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, Bannister was the son of a black man from Barbados and a white woman from Canada. All British provinces abolished slavery shortly after Bannisters birth, giving him the latitude to develop his interest for art, studying the major established artists, while living as a free Black. His mother encouraged his interest in art, and he made his earliest studies, in drawing and watercolor, at the age of ten. Harris Hutch introduced Bannister and his brother to the classics of music, literature, and art.
During these formative years, he spent every opportunity doodling with crayons and charcoal. By the time he was sixteen, both of his parents had passed away, prompting a more rapid maturation. After working as a cook on vessels on the Eastern seaboard, he moved to Boston with his brother in 1848, where he set himself up as a barber serving the black community.
During the 1850s and 1860s he learned the technique of solar photography, a process of enlarging photographic images that were developed outdoors in daylight, which he continued to practice while working in Boston and New York. Documented paintings from this time include religious scenes, seascapes and genre subjects, for example the noted Newspaper Boy (1869), a rare study of urban black experience.
By the mid 1860s, he was studying under Dr. William Rimmer at the Lowell Institute and painting landscapes, portraits, religious, and genre subjects. Bannister loved visiting museums, libraries, and art galleries. Envisioning the potential for photography as an art form, he became an early painter of photographs. He married New York businesswoman Christina Carteaux after meeting her through a black drama group, and it was her stature that probably allowed and encouraged him to become a full time, established painter.
Although he never took formal art training, he was one of a few blacks who attended the Lowell Institute evening program. Financial freedom allowed him to open his own studio, and he painted in a vigorous Barbizon mode, focusing on natures changing moods. Often he included well-drawn and painted figures reacting to the drama of a natural scene, as in Approaching Storm (1886, oil on canvas). Bannister attributed his art talents to his belief in God.
By 1870, when he and Christina moved to Providence, Rhode Island, his landscapes were showing the influence of the Barbizon style, and his work had reached a maturity, infused with his spiritual and emotional responses to nature. His work flourished and his paintings were collected by such patrons as George T. Downing (1819-1903), a wealthy local entrepreneur, and the black soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933).
Bannister was the only New England artist to win a bronze medal at the 1876 World Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia for his creation, Under the Oaks, (untracked), which made him the first African American artist to win a national award. A contemporary, in referring to Under the Oaks, described it as a 'simple composition, quiet in tone but with strong oppositions' ('Reminiscences of George Whitaker', Providence Magazine, Feb. 1914).
Bannister drew inspiration from Millet and the Barbizon School. While he was conscious of his rights as an American citizen, he did not bring politics into his art but aimed to win recognition for his achievement in landscape painting. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1879.
Edward Bannister was one of the most respected artists in Providence, which was home to many pastoral landscape artists. Bannister was one of the founders of the Providence Art Club, which later assisted in the development of the Rhode Island School of Design.
During the Civil War, he became an advocate of rights for the Union black soldiers.
The last part of his life was marked by ill health and declining patronage, which did not, however, deter him from maintaining a productive output, with 27 paintings dating from the 1890s. Bannister and his wife remained in Providence until his death in 1901.
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Samella Lewis, African American Art and Artists
EDWARD M. BANNISTER
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