This painting is an extraordinary example of the 19th Century African American artist from Rhode Island – Edward Bannister. The landscape with the mastery of pond reflections and a pale sky evidences why this artist won a medal at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
Edward Bannister (1828 – 1901) Landscape with Lily Pond and Bridge Oil on Canvas 20” x 30”
Biography- Edward Bannister
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. Shortly after his birth, the British had abolished slavery in all provinces of Canada, allowing Edward Bannister to be raised as a free man. His mother encouraged his talent in the arts at a young age, having both he and his brother tutored in literature, art and music. Unfortunately, by the age of 16, both his parents had died, leaving the Bannister brothers to provide for themselves. Working as a seaman, the young man travelled the Northeastern coast until he and his brother settled in Boston in 1848.
Boston was pivotal, both for Bannister’s developing identity as a man of color and his drive to succeed in the arts. From the 1830s on, Boston was a national center of both White and Black abolitionist activity. The city’s African-American community constituted the third largest population of free blacks in the north, and one of the most politically active in the country. He became an ardent supporter and voice in the abolitionist movement.
Despite requiring full-time employment in unrelated fields, Bannister managed to study and produce work as an artist. By the mid-1850s he had become known in the local community as a skilled portraitist, mostly in crayon. In 1854, Bannister received his first commission for an oil painting from Dr. John V. DeGrasse, a leading figure in Boston’s Black community. Entitled, The Ship Outward Bound (whereabouts unknown), the work depicts a ship under full sail, departing the harbor for a distant port. The Liberator, a periodical paper associated with the Black activist community, reported on the commission, which was to be the first of many Bannister seascapes. Raised near the sea, the artist returned to coastal scenes frequently in his artistic career. In the context of his times and circumstances as a Black American living in the pre-Civil War period, the subject of a ship leaving harbor, likely had both personal and political relevance to the artist. Imagery in The Ship Outward Bound would have powerful symbolism in African-American culture during the days of slavery in America, evoking the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.
By 1853, Bannister had secured employment as a hairdresser in the establishment of Madame Cristiana Carteaux, a successful businesswoman, and his future wife, who owned a string of fashionable beauty salons in Boston and Providence. She was a woman of mixed Narragansett Indian and black heritage, well known and respected in the Boston African-American community. When Edward Bannister married Cristiana Carteaux in June 1857, her wealth allowed Bannister to become a full-time painter, which was instrumental in his career success. While Bannister had established himself as a young regionalist painter in Boston by the mid-1850s, one of its first African-American artists, it was his wife’s financial success that freed him from the necessity of mundane employment so he could concentrate on his development as an artist. Bannister credited Cristiana with critical guidance in his career as well. He stated later in life, “I would have made out very poorly had it not been for her, and my greatest successes have come through her, either through her criticisms of my pictures, or the advice she would give me in the matter of placing them in public.”
Although he was well educated, Bannister never had an opportunity for formal art training. Indeed even in the liberal-minded city of Boston, Bannister tasted a bitter lesson in reality for an African-American with the lofty ambition of a career in the arts. Contemporary biographers described his disheartening and fruitless search for an established artist who would take him on as a student. Denied academic training, studio apprenticeships or foreign travel, pathways considered the normal training grounds for young American artists. Museum visits and interaction with other artists were his primary source of training. By the mid-1860s, Bannister access to the larger arts community began to open. Around 1863, Bannister did become one of the first blacks who attended the Lowell Institute evening drawing program, where he received formal training under Dr. William Rimmer, noted physician and sculptor.
Although Bannister is primarily remembered as a landscape painter, a closer review of his works reveal he worked in a variety of genres. He repeatedly painted seascapes, as well as portraits, floral still life and religious scenes over his lifetime. Indeed Bannister advertised himself as a portrait painter for the first ten years of his career. His landscape painting style had a vigorous affinity for the French Barbizon mode from which he never strayed. Bannister may have regarded landscape painting as a genre in which he could overcome what he believed were his technical shortcomings. As noted, his formal artistic training with William Rimmer was brief, and he felt he never achieved a proficiency in depicting the human figure.
In late 1869, Bannister and his wife moved from Boston to Providence, where he became an active professional artist and respected leader in the artistic community. Providence and Newport provided fertile ground for the growth of a professional arts community. Fortunes made in textile and metal product manufacturing, provided a base of wealthy patronage that supported a growing number of artists. Bannister’s painting style and compositions had matured but continued to demonstrate his affinities with the Barbizon masters Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot. In his Barbizon-like landscapes, he produced a poetic view of tranquil lands with people and animals in harmony. According to John Nelson Arnold, a fellow artist and friend, “Bannister looked at nature with a poet’s feeling. Skies, rocks, fields were all absorbed and distilled through his soul and projected upon the canvas with a virile force and a poetic beauty.” Judging from the extant works of his Providence years and documented exhibitions, Bannister concentrated increasingly on interpreting the coastlines and inland views of the Rhode Island landscape.
His career flourished during the 1870s. By 1872, Bannister moved into a fourth floor studio in the Woods Building at 2 College Street in Providence. Known as the “artists floor”, it housed the studios of leading RI artists Sidney Burleigh, John Arnold, James Lincoln, and Frederick Batcheller. This remained his studio for the rest of his career. That year, his painting Summer Afternoon (whereabouts unknown) won an award of premium at the Rhode Island Industrial Exhibition. That year he also began submitting works to the prestigious Boston Art Club.
Bannister achieved national recognition when he won the bronze medal (first prize) in painting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with his work Under the Oaks (whereabouts unknown) in 1876. He not only bested leading American landscape artists as Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church, but as a black man at that time in America, this achievement in the arts was unheard of. He submitted his painting Under the Oaks with no identification other than his signature and later recalled that when he appeared before the awards committee to claim his prize, “an explosion could not have created more of a sensation in that room”. He had other success with awards in Boston at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in 1878 winning bronze, and in 1881 and 1884 winning silver.
In addition to critical success, Bannister’s works were in demand. With his increased artistic prestige, patronage also increased. Bannister’s works were collected by prominent white patrons including mechanical engineer and inventor George Henry Corliss (1817-1888), and noted art collectors Isaac Bates, and Joseph Ely, all wealthy Rhode Island entrepreneurs. His career success only enhanced his status as a leading figure in the Black community as well. Leading black figures such as restaurateur and political leader George T. Downing (1819-1903), educator John Hope (1868-1936) and the famed soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933) all purchased Bannister paintings for their collections. An 1880 Philadelphia exhibition of works by the leading African-American artists featured Bannister paintings along with works by Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert Scott Duncanson.
Bannister was a well-respected and influential painter among the professional artists of Providence. In 1878, he was one of the original board members of the newly established Rhode Island School of Design. With his friends and colleagues George Whitaker, Charles Walter Stetson, Bannister is regarded as a founder of the Providence Art Club in that same year. The first meeting of twelve artists and patrons was held in Bannister’s studio. By 1880 the club had grown in numbers and influence and was granted a charter. The Providence Art Club became central to the development of Providence’s art community, creating opportunities for exhibiting Providence artists and bringing them together with art lovers and patrons. From 1880 on, Bannister regularly exhibited works at both the Boston and Providence Art Clubs.
The last years of his life were marked by poor health. He suffered a fatal heart attack on January 9, 1901 while attending a prayer meeting at the Elmwood Street Baptist Church. In May his friends and colleagues at the Providence Art Club organized a memorial exhibition of 101 of his works.
Today his works are in all the major Rhode Island cultural institution collections including the Newport Art Museum, Newport Historical Society, Providence Art Club, Providence Athenaeum, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, Rhode Island Historical Society, and Brown University. Nationally, his painting Newsboy (1869) is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as is Driving Home the Cows (1881), Moon over Harbor (c. 1868) and at least five other works. Bannister’s River Scene (1883) is in the collection at the Honolulu Museum of Art, while his painting, Boston Street Scene (Boston Common) is on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Of note, many of his major works remain in private hands or their whereabouts are unknown.
Sources:Corrine Jennings, Director Kenkelba House, Edward Mitchell Bannister
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art, Samella Lewis, African American Art and Artists
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