Bannister, Edward Mitchell

views updated May 14 2018

Bannister, Edward Mitchell

c. 1826
January 9, 1901

Edward Mitchell Bannister was born sometime between 1826 and 1828 in St. Andrews, a small seaport in New Brunswick, Canada. His father Edward Bannister, probably a native of Barbados, died in 1832, and Edward and his younger brother, William, were raised by their mother, Hannah Alexander Bannister, a native of St. Andrews. Bannister's artistic talent was encouraged by his mother, and he won a local reputation for clever crayon portraits of family and schoolmates.

By 1850 Bannister had moved to Boston with the intention of becoming a painter, but because of his race he was unable to find an established artist who would accept him as a student. He worked at a variety of jobs to support himself and by 1853 was a barber in the salon of the successful African-American businesswoman Madame Christiana Carteaux, whom he married in 1857.

Bannister continued to study and paint, and he began winning recognition and patronage in the African-American community. In 1854 he received his first commission for an oil painting, from African-American physician John V. DeGrasse, titled The Ship Outward Bound. By 1863 Bannister was featured in William Wells Brown's book celebrating the accomplishments of prominent African Americans (Brown, 1863). His earliest extant portrait, of Prudence Nelson Bell (1864), was commissioned by an African-American Boston family.

Bannister was active in the social and political life of Boston's African-American community. He belonged to the Crispus Attucks Choir and the Histrionic Club. His colleagues included such leading black abolitionists as William Cooper Nell, Charles Lenox Remond, Lewis Hayden, and John Sweat Rock. He was an officer in two African-American abolitionist organizations (the Colored Citizens of Boston and the Union Progressive Association), added his name to antislavery petitions, and served as a delegate to the New England Colored Citizens Conventions in 1859 and 1865. In 1864 Bannister donated his portrait of the late Col. Robert Gould Shaw to be raffled at the Solders' Relief fair organized by his wife to assist the families of soldiers from the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Colored Regiment.

Bannister is said to have spent a year in New York City in the early 1860s apprenticed to a Broadway photographer; he advertised himself as a photographer from 1863 to 1866. An 1864 photograph of Bannister's early patron Dr. DeGrasse survives from that period. Bannister continued to paint and win commissions, and although he listed himself in city directories as a portrait painter until 1874, works like his Untitled [Rhode Island Seascape] and Dorchester, Massachusetts, both painted around 1856, document his beginning interest in interpreting the New England landscape.

In the mid-1860s Bannister began to receive greater recognition in the Boston arts community. Sometime between 1863 and 1865 he received his only formal training, studying in the life-drawing classes given by physician and artist William Rimmer at the Lowell Institute. Bannister took a studio in the Studio Building from 1863 to 1866, where he was exposed to William Morris Hunt's promotion of the French Barbizon painters, and his paintings began receiving favorable notices from Boston critics. His growing confidence as an artist is indicated in two tightly painted monumental treatments of farmers and animals in the landscape, Herdsman with Cows and Untitled [Man with Two Oxen], both completed in 1869.

Bannister was part of a community of African-American artists in Boston in the 1860s. Sculptor Edmonia Lewis had a studio just two doors from him in the Studio Building; portraitist William H. Simpson was a neighbor and fellow member of the Crispus Attucks Choir and the Histrionic Club; and the young painter Nelson Primus sought out Bannister when he moved to Boston in the mid-1860s.

In 1869 the Bannisters moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Bannister was immediately recognized by its growing art community. His first exhibit included Newspaper Boy (1869), one of the earliest depictions of working-class African Americans by an African-American artist, and a portrait of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Bannister came to national attention in 1876, when his four-by-five-foot painting Under the Oaks won a first-prize medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. This bucolic view of sheep and cows under a stand of oaks received widespread critical acclaim. But Bannister later remembered how, when he stepped forward to confirm his award, he was "just another inquisitive colored man" to the hostile awards committee.

Recognition for Under the Oaks brought Bannister increasing stature and success. By 1878 he sat on the board of the newly created Rhode Island School of Design, and he and fellow artists Charles Walter Stetson and George Whitaker founded the influential Providence Art Club. From 1877 to 1898 Bannister's studio was in the Woods Building, along with those of artists John Arnold, James Lincoln, George Whitaker, Sidney Burleigh, and Charles Walter Stetson. His Saturday art classes were well attended, and he won silver medals at exhibitions of the Boston Charitable Mechanics Association in 1881 and 1884. He exhibited throughout his career at the Boston and Providence Art Clubs, and also in New York City, New Orleans, Detroit, and Hartford, Connecticut. His work was much in demand by New England galleries and collectors, and in 1891 the Providence Art Club featured thirty-three of his works in a retrospective exhibition, to favorable reviews.

A number of Bannister's paintings, including Woman Walking Down a Path (1882), Pastoral Landscape (1881), Road to a House with a Red Roof (1889), and Seaweed Gatherers (1898), reflect his strong affinity for the style and philosophy of such Barbizon artists as Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot. But Bannister drew from numerous sources throughout his career, producing work in a variety of styles and moods, from serene vistas such as his Palmer River (1885), to the Turner-influenced dramatic skies of Sunset (c. 18751880) and Untitled [Landscape with Man on Horse] (1884), to free and lushly rendered views of woodland scenery such as Untitled [Trees and Shrubbery] (1877), in order to express what he described as "the infinite, subtle qualities of the spiritual idea, centering in all created things."

Although he is remembered primarily as a landscape painter, Bannister also drew his subjects from classical literature (Leucothea Rescuing Ulysses, 1891), still life (Untitled [Floral Still Life], n.d.), and religion (Portrait of Saint Luke, n.d.). His prolific output as a marine painter is represented by numerous drawings, watercolors, and paintings such as Ocean Cliffs (1884), Sabin Point, Narragansett Bay (1885), and Untitled [Rhode Island Seascape] (1893).

As in Boston, Bannister associated with, and his work was collected by, leaders of Rhode Island's African-American community. Bannister and his wife continued their involvement in the concerns of their church and community. In 1890 Christiana Carteaux Bannister led the efforts of African Americans to establish a Home for Aged Colored Women in Providence, which is today known as the Bannister Nursing Care Center.

Although he had been experiencing heart trouble in his later years, Bannister continued to paint. Indeed, his late works (Street Scene, c. 1895; The Old Home, 1899; Untitled [Plow in the Field], 1897) reveal an openness to experimentation and growth, with an increasingly abstract consideration of form and color on canvas.

On January 9, 1901, Bannister collapsed at an evening prayer meeting at the Elmwood Street Baptist Church and died shortly thereafter. Held in great esteem by Providence artists and patrons, he was the subject of lengthy tributes and eulogies. In May 1901 his friends in the Art Club organized a memorial exhibition of over one hundred Bannister paintings loaned by local collectors. Later that year, Providence artists erected a stone monument on his grave in North Burial Ground. Christiana Carteaux Bannister died two years later.

See also Art; Painting and Sculpture


Brown, William Wells. "Edward M. Bannister." In The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton; Boston: Wallcut, 1863. Reprint, New York: Kraus Reprint, 1969. Also available from <>.

Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. "Edward Mitchell Bannister." In Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America (exhibition catalog). Washington, D.C., 1985.

Holland, Juanita Marie. The Life and Work of Edward Mitchell Bannister: A Research Chronology and Exhibition Record. New York: Kenkeleba House, 1992.

Holland, Juanita Marie. "Reaching Through the Veil: African-American Artist Edward Mitchell Bannister." In Edward Mitchell Bannister, 18281901 (exhibition catalog). New York: Kenkeleba House, 1992.

juanita marie holland (1996)
Updated bibliography

Edward Mitchell Bannister

views updated May 17 2018

Edward Mitchell Bannister

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

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. □

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