Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:
Nineteenth-Century American Romanticism
Date and Place of Birth:
November 1828 (disputed; sometimes listed as 1826 or 1833), St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada
Though born north of the 49th Parallel, Edward Mitchell Bannister was truly an American son and the first highly-successful African-American artist in New England's history. His father came from Barbados and died when Bannister was a child in 1832. His mother Hannah Alexander Bannister, of whom little is known, died in 1844, when Bannister may have been around 16. Shortly afterwards, Bannister lived with a foster family and then joined a ship's crew, as young men from this sea-faring community would often do.
Four years later, Bannister settled in Boston and became a barber for his income. He took studio art courses at the Lowell Institute with William Rimmer (1816-1879), and soon began to sell his portraits.
One of the greatest influences on Bannister's life was his wife, Christiana Carteaux, a descendant of Narragansett Indians who owned several hair salons in Boston. She married Edward Bannister on June 10, 1857 and enthusiastically encouraged his artistic endeavors.
Around 1869-70, the couple moved from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, not far from Mrs. Bannister's birth place, North Kingston, RI. They never had children.
They were also active abolitionists, and worked with Dr. John deGrasse, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1876, Bannister won the first prize bronze medal for his enormous painting Under the Oaks at Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Bannister recalled "an explosion" occurred with the jury's realization that the prize had gone to an African-American. (In those days, African Americans were often turned away from attending art exhibitions.) Fortunately, the other artists demanded that Bannister receive his award and, from that point on, his career took off.
Under the Oaks sold in Boston to John Duff for $1500, an impressive sum for a living artist. Two years later, Bannister co-founded the Providence Art Club, which remains alive and well on Thomas Street to this day.
Surprisingly, Bannister never traveled to Europe and yet his style looks remarkably similar to the French Barbizon School and England's John Constable of the mid-nineteenth century. Most likely, he met artists like William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) in Boston who emulated this European Romanticism: charming hamlets or lush countrysides dotted, occasionally, with tiny colorful figures (called stuffage).
Bannister's technique worked up the surface through painterly brushstrokes of varying density and impasto; his early works are heavier than his later works - perhaps due to the influence of American Impressionism. His preference for landscape views confined by hills and trees differed tremendously from the mid-century Hudson River School, whose work captured vast panoramas of America's natural bounties.
Edward Bannister died attending a prayer service at his family's Baptist church and was buried in North Burial Ground, Providence. His grave is marked with a ten-foot granite boulder that bears his name, a pipe, a palette and the inscription:
"Friends of this pure and lofty soul, freed from the form that lies beneath the sod, have placed this stone to mark the grave of him who while he portrayed nature, walked with God."
In 1978, Manhattan's Kenkeleba House rediscovered his work and in 1992, the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford, Connecticut organized an exhibition.
In 1978, Rhode Island College, located in Providence, named its exhibition space Edward Mitchell Bannister Gallery to honor the memory of Rhode Island's beloved nineteenth-century landscape painter.
- The Oxen Wagon, ca. 1888, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York
- Oak Trees, 1870, Museum of African Art
- After the Shower, n.d., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
- Boston Street Scene (Boston Common), ca. 1860?, Walters Art Museum
Date and Place of Death:
January 9, 1901, Providence, Rhode Island
Driskell, David C. Two Hundred Year of African American Art.
Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Sims, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008.
Bannister Gallery, Rhode Island College