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Edward M. Bannister

Within the past two decades there has been renewed interest in E.M. Bannister’s artistic achievement in not only Rhode Island art, but in American art as well. After careful examination by art historians, he is recognized today as one of the important black artists of the 19th century.

Bannister was motivated to paint after reading a 1867 New York Herald Article that claimed, “while the (black) may harbor an appreciation of art, he is unable to prove it.” With this challenge, his career as an artist began.

He chose to specialize in landscape painting, and eventually excelled in this field, heavily influenced by the Barbizon mood popular at the time. Subdued but warm color, a generalized conception of form, and deep shadows characterize most of his paintings and reflect his sensitive and modest character.

Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, Bannister came to Providence in 1870 after receiving art training at Boston’s Lowell Institute in the mid-1860’s. There he studied anatomy with the artist and physician, William Rimmer. In his Providence Studio he painted portraits, religious and genre subjects, sea and landscapes. It was in 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, that he rose to national prominence, winning the first place bronze medal for his painting “Under the Oaks”, becoming the first Afro-American to win a national art award. Bannister continued to earn honors including two silver and one bronze medal at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association Art Shows. In addition to these artistic achievements, Bannister was instrumental in the founding of the Providence Art Club.

Today Bannister’s work is particularly important because it represents the climate of Providence painting at the moment when the community decided to actively engage in the promotion of art. As an American Black, Bannister was a pioneer, achieving recognition in a field where none had practiced before. His works can be seen at the Museum of African Art and the Museum of American Art in Washington, Harvard Medical Association in Massachusetts, and at the Rhode Island Historical Society, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, and the Providence Art Club.

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Edward M. Bannister
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