Jamestown Harbor at Sunset, 1895

The Providence Art Club recently mounted a tribute to commemorate the life and work of one of their original founders, the Black artist Edward Mitchell Bannister. Bannister, born in New Brunswick, immigrated to Boston in about 1848. There he became a barber and ultimately through his own efforts learned to paint.

American artists who had studied in Europe and were exhibiting in Boston would have exposed Bannister to the French Barbizon School which was having a profound impact on American painting. Bannister’s landscapes from this period reflect the tonal qualities that characterize the emotional style of the Barbizon philosophy which glorified the importance of nature.

By 1870 Bannister had moved to Providence and was painting full-time time joining other like-minded artists to form the Providence Art Club.

In the JHS collection, Bannister’s painting Jamestown Harbor at Sunset, 1895 is from a later period in his career showing influence from the Impressionist movement with a more colorful palette and a lighter brushstroke. As in many of his paintings the figures are small and insignificant to the landscape perhaps showing man’s place within nature, an idea often associated with the Hudson River School.

Bannister owned a small sloop and spent summers sailing Narragansett Bay which would bring him to Jamestown evidenced by this painting and one titled Fort Dumpling, Jamestown, Rhode Island (private collection).

Although deeply committed to equality for African Americans, his paintings did not often directly reflect their hardships but often conveyed a subtle political message. Edward Bannister was one of the few Black artists of the 19th century recognized for his work while he was alive. After his death, his style of painting fell out of fashion, and due to racial prejudice he was largely forgotten until the 1960s emphasis on civil rights reintroduced his legacy.

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