Exploring Two Artworks by Black Abolitionist Painter Edward Mitchell Bannister
American Gems: Small Artworks, Enduring Impact: Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1902)
By Glenn Tomlinson, William Randolph Hearst Curator of Education, Norton Museum of Art
This new series features short essays on artworks in the American collection that visitors may have missed simply because of their intimate scale. Despite their size, these works and the artists who made them provide important insights into the expanding field of American art. It is our pleasure to explore these gems with you.
Edward Mitchell Bannister’s two landscapes in the Norton Museum of Art collection present the New England countryside at its most contemplative. In the earlier work from 1881, a woman sits in the shadows of great trees whose trunks and branches frame her against a sunlit forest glade. The crimson ribbon on her hat, a counterpoint to the bright green and yellow tones of the open space, calls attention to the figure as she reads. Across the glade a steep hillside dense with foliage rises to the top of the canvas. Through branches high above the woman’s head, we glimpse clouds and blue sky.
In the smaller work from 1886, we find ourselves before a cluster of deep green trees rising over a path that leads to an open field adjacent to a body of water. The blue and white strokes upon the water reflect a sky dense with clouds; their color and the gestural brushstrokes that describe them suggest the threat of a storm. In contrast to the earlier painting, where summer greens and yellows are warmed by the brown under painting, this work is painted in cooler, blue tones characteristic of its subject. Both views exhibit Bannister’s enthusiasm for the pastoral paintings of the French Barbizon painters Camille Corot and François Millet. They also reveal Bannister’s colorful palette and the expressive brushwork he developed prior to the rise of Impressionism in the United States.
Bannister was born in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1828. His father, from Jamaica, died when the boy was very young. His mother, who supported his interest in art, passed when he was a teenager. Like many young men from the region, he went to sea and found work as a ship’s cook. In his twentieth year, he settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a barber. He also entered the city’s art world, attending lectures by anatomist and sculptor William Rimmer and finding inspiration in the work of William Morris Hunt who helped introduce the Barbizon painters to America. In 1857 Bannister married Christina Cartreaux, a successful businesswoman of Narragansett Indian descent. They were active in abolitionist circles, and during the Civil War, they raised funds to support equal pay for African American soldiers in the Union Army. In 1870, the couple moved to Providence, Rhode Island.
Bannister’s career changed suddenly when his painting titled Under the Oaks was awarded a first prize at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. When the artist arrived to receive his award, the judges balked, as they had no idea that Bannister was Black. His fellow artists forced the judges to honor their original decision. Bannister’s success in Philadelphia confirmed his reputation in New England, and incidentally, inspired a young African American art student, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
While Bannister certainly experienced racism, he did not choose to reflect social or political beliefs directly in his work; instead, like many landscape painters of the 19th century, he felt that his art should reveal and celebrate God’s presence in the natural world. One scholar has related Bannister’s work to the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it is intriguing to consider his landscapes in the context of this philosophy which explored the relationship between one’s spiritual life and nature.
Bannister died of a heart attack while attending church in 1901. He was honored that same year by his colleagues who hosted a memorial exhibition of over 100 of his paintings at the Providence Art Club, which he had helped found in 1880.
-Glenn Tomlinson, William Randolph Hearst Curator of Education