Bannister, Edward M.
Edward M. Bannister
Artist, painter, photographer
Edward Mitchell Bannister is widely thought to be the only prominent African American artist of the late nineteenth century to develop his talents without the benefit of European exposure. But during his lifetime his work was excluded from major museum collections, and it received neither public nor critical comment. Bannister's work was rediscovered in the late twentieth century.
Bannister was born between 1826 and 1828 in St. Andrews, a tiny seaport on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the St. Croix River in New Brunswick, Canada. His father, who may have been a native of Barbados, West Indies, died early in Bannister's life. The racial identity of Bannister's mother, Hannah Alexander Bannister, is not known. Throughout his life, Bannister credited her with fostering his earliest artistic interests. After his mother's death in 1844, Bannister and his younger brother William were sent to live and work on the nearby farm of Harris Hatch, a prominent and wealthy white lawyer from Boston. As was customary for young men in St. Andrews, Bannister then worked on ships along the coast of New Brunswick during the late 1840s.
Pursues Painting and Abolitionism in Boston
Bannister and his brother moved to Boston before 1850. Bannister's decision to move was pivotal; the city was a national center for both white and black abolitionist activity in the United States, and its African American community represented the third-largest population of free blacks in the northeast. Additionally, the city was known as a center for intellectual and artistic achievement. That said, African Americans in Boston were still relegated to separate neighborhoods, churches, public transport, and segregated in many public institutions. Pro- and anti-slavery tensions created an often dangerous racial climate.
- c. 1826
- Born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada
- Works on ships around New Brunswick; moves to Boston
- Listed as hairdresser in Boston census
- Receives first painting commission
- Marries Christiana Carteaux on June 10
- Declares profession as artist and portrait painter
- Lives in the home of Lewis Hayden, a stop on the Underground Railroad and gathering place for abolitionist leaders
- Studies photography in New York
- Moves to Providence, Rhode Island; becomes recognized in artistic community and gains several patrons
- Wins first prize at Philadelphia Centennial Exposition
- Forms what would later become the Providence Art Club
- Becomes a regular contributor to Boston Art Club exhibitions; exhibits painting at National Academy of Design, New York
- Teaches weekly art classes to children of wealthy Rhode Island families
- Exhibits thirty-three paintings at Providence Art Club, to much acclaim
- Returns to Boston
- Dies in Boston on January 9
Unable to find an apprenticeship with an established artist, Bannister held a variety of menial jobs before becoming a hairdresser. Denied the academic tutelage, studio apprenticeships, and foreign travel that were the training stages for white American artists, Bannister developed independently. He learned from visits to Boston museums and by fraternizing with other young artists. Few of Bannister's paintings from the 1850s and 1860s have survived, so an assessment of his early period in Boston is difficult. It is known, however, that for his first ten years in Boston, he advertised himself as a portrait painter.
Bannister must have seen and been influenced by the landscape paintings of William Morris Hunt who had studied in Europe, had been inspired by the Barbizon School, and held numerous public exhibitions in Boston during the 1860s. American landscape painters of the time were increasingly aware of the simple rustic motifs and pictorial poetry of French Barbizon paintings by Jean-Baptiste Corot, Jean-Francois Millet, and Charles Francois Daubigny in the mid-nineteenth century. Bannister was no exception; his landscapes make up the largest portion of his body of work.
In Boston, Bannister fell in with a group of African Americans who were active in the fight against slavery. These abolitionists were the same people that were most supportive of Bannister's painting, giving him financial support and artistic recognition. He was friends with fellow artist William H. Simpson and lawyer George L. Ruf-fin, sang with the Crispus Attucks Choir, and joined the African American Histrionic Club, which performed dramatic selections around Boston and satirical farces at political meetings. He lived for two years (1859–60) in the home of Lewis Hayden, a black activist. Hayden's house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Bannister also was recording secretary for the abolitionist group Colored Citizens of Boston and, later, the Union Progressive Association (UPA). It was with the UPA that Bannister participated in the most historic event for African Americans of that era. He was present with the organization when President Abraham Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves on January 1, 1863.
Begins Earning Commissions and Reviews
In 1853, Bannister found work with Madame Christiana Carteaux, a successful black businesswoman who owned a string of beauty salons in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. Carteaux was a Narragansett Indian who was born in North Kingston, Rhode Island. In 1854, Bannister received his first commission for an oil painting, from a prominent African American doctor in Boston. "The Ship Outward Bound" was the first of Bannister's many seascapes, inspired, no doubt, by countless hours spent sketching along the Rhode Island coast and at Boston's harbor. Bannister married Carteaux on June 10, 1857. In 1858, with her financial support, he began painting full time. She also gave Bannister excellent critical guidance. Sometime around 1862, Bannister spent a year studying photography in New York City. For several years, he listed his profession as photographer, and likely shot portraits to earn extra money.
Around 1863, Bannister began to make headway in the white artist community and was finally able to study formally. He was the only African American artist in the evening drawing classes of Dr. William Rimmer. By 1864, Bannister was able to acquire space in the Studio Building, where he worked alongside other Boston artists. In 1866, his name began appearing in Boston art reviews.
Christiana's family and business ties in Rhode Island likely led to the couple's move to Providence by October 1869. Increasing racial tensions in Boston may have also been a factor. Providence and nearby Newport were thriving arts communities, replete with a host of wealthy, supportive patrons. Within five years of the couple's moving there, one of Bannister's paintings, "Under the Oaks," was accepted in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and was selected for the first-prize bronze medal. The judges, after discovering that Bannister was African American, became indignant and wanted to reconsider the award. Bannister's white competitors, however, supported Bannister and he was awarded the medal.
Enjoys Success in Providence
Bannister's reputation grew in Rhode Island, and he received numerous commissions. He produced many landscapes, most of which depict quiet, bucolic scenes rendered in somber tones and thick impasto. Bannister's landscapes of the 1870s were painted with less detail and with heavier impasto. They evoke a tranquil mood that became one of the hallmarks of Bannister's style. Landscapes of the 1880s and 1890s employed a lighter impasto and loosely applied, broken color that suggest impressionist influences. Picturesque motifs including cottages, castles, cattle, dawns, sunsets, and small bodies of water were featured frequently in Bannister's works; he portrayed nature as a calm and submissive force. Interestingly, Bannister's paintings reflect no social or racial themes, and the small figures seen frequently in his landscapes appear to be white. Although the majority of Bannister's paintings are landscapes, he also painted portraits, figure studies, religious scenes, seascapes, and still lifes.
By 1878, Bannister was a founding board member for the Rhode Island School of Design. He also helped form what was to become the Providence Art Club in order to bring together artists, art lovers, and patrons. Bannister exhibited in the club's annual spring and fall shows. He became a regular contributor to Boston Art Club exhibitions, and showed his work at New York's National Academy of Design. He enjoyed the support of many local patrons, including prominent white businessmen, and began teaching weekly art classes to the children of wealthy Rhode Island families. Regular summer trips on his sloop yacht, Fanchon, influenced Bannister's later, dramatic seascapes.
In 1891, Bannister mounted the largest exhibition of his works, thirty-three paintings, at the Providence Art Club. The show was a retrospective, as it included works from as far back as 1869. After the show, Bannister's output seems to have diminished. The quality of his work from this period remained high, but either lack of exhibition opportunities or age slowed him down. In the late 1880s, the Providence Art Club had begun to display works featuring racist images, which were still acceptable to many white art lovers. This, too, may have inhibited Bannister from creating more work.
Rediscovered in Twentieth Century
Bannister died on January 9, 1901, while attending a prayer meeting at his church. Shortly after his death, the Providence Art Club mounted a memorial exhibition of 101 of Bannister's paintings owned by Providence collectors. Christiana Bannister died, penniless, two years after her husband's death. The couple had no children, and there was no one left in the family to promote interest in Bannister's work.
Some of Bannister's paintings have appeared in museum exhibitions, in particular the Rhode Island School of Design (1966, 1986) and the Newport Art Museum (1991). But Bannister's work was long overlooked by scholars and curators because his paintings looked murky when reproduced in photos. However, Bannister's papers piqued the interest of a contemporary Providence Art Club member, and New York's Kenkelaba House Museum received funds to research and create a Bannister exhibition in 1989. Some of his works are housed in the collection of African American universities, and more than 100 of his paintings and works on paper are held by the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. But the whereabouts of many of his works is unknown.
Bannister's grave in North Burial Ground, Providence, is marked by a rough granite boulder ten feet high bearing a carving of a palette with the artist's name and a pipe.
Holland, Juanita Marie. Edward Mitchell Bannister. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1992.
Kinzer, Stephen. "A Struggle to Be Seen." New York Times, 22 February 2001.
"About Edward Mitchell Bannister." http://www.ric.edu/bannister/BannisterBio.html (Accessed 23 March 2005).