BAIA BITS: Edward Mitchell Bannister

BAIA BITS

Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

 

The 4×5 foot painting, Under the Oaks, was so masterful it won first prize at the popular 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. When its 40-year-old creator arrived at the venue to receive his prize for the pastoral depiction of sheep and cows under a stand of oaks, he was initially denied admission because he was Black.

 

Under the Oaks by Edward Mitchell Bannister

 

“In an instant, my blood was up,” later wrote Edward Mitchell Bannister, noting “the looks in the room were unmistakable. I was not an artist to them, simply an inquisitive colored man. Controlling myself, I said, deliberately, ‘I painted the picture.” Bannister goes on to add that “an explosion could not have made a more marked impression.”

Although Bannister would ultimately receive his first-prize medal from the expo, the judges wanted to rescind the award after learning his identity. However, protests by the exhibition’s white artists would preserve his win.

Born in New Brunswick, Canada around 1826, Bannister and younger brother, William, were raised by their mother upon their father’s death in 1832. Encouraged by his mother, the young prodigy began to make a mark in his local community for his portraits of family and schoolmates.

In the 1850s, upon relocating to Boston as an aspiring painter, Bannister was unable to find a teacher who would accept him because of his race. He worked odd jobs to support himself, including as a barber, while continuing to practice his craft and sell his works to his growing client base in the local African-American community. In 1854, he received his first commission for the oil painting, The Ship Outward Bound, from African American physician John V. DeGrasse.

By the 1860s, Bannister hit his stride and was featured in William Wells Brown’s book celebrating prominent African Americans and was an active participant in Black Boston social circles. Among his many activities, Bannister was an officer in several abolitionist organizations and twice served as a delegate to the New England Colored Citizens Conventions. In 1864, he donated his portrait of the late leader of Massachusetts’ all-Black 54th Colored Regiment, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, to the Solders’ Relief fair organized by his wife to aid surviving families of this historic unit later depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.

In 1876, after relocating to Providence, Rhode Island and receiving national acclaim for his first-prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Bannister’s reputation as a landscape painter continued to rise. In 1878, he assumed a board position for the newly created Rhode Island School of Design and, in 1880, helped found the Providence Art Club, holding their initial meeting in his studio where he taught Saturday art classes. His popularity as a painter, art instructor, and active member of New England’s Black community would continue for over two decades.

In January 1901, upon collapsing at an evening prayer meeting, Edward Mitchell Bannister died at age 72. Upon his passing, a collection of Providence-area artists erected a stone monument on his grave.

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