Federal Reserve Board Chairman G. William Miller was still president of Textron Corp. in Providence, R.I. twelve years ago when he came across a collection of 14 paintings by Edward M. Bannister. A Providence landscape and genre painter, Bannister, like many of his 19th-century colleagues, had been all but forgotten. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, Bannister (1828-1901) was black.
Miller told Hubert Humphrey about his find, and Humphrey suggested that Miller buy the paintings and give them to the then fledgling Museum of African Art in Washington. Thus began what is now a collection of 150 paintings by Bannister, and 250 works by other 19th-century Afro-American artists. Seventy-five paintings and sculpture by five of the best of these artists have just gone on view at the Museum of African Art, 316 A St. NE.
The show is a microcosm of the 19th-century American art, and but for the title, "Five 19th-Century Afro-American Artists," no one would know that there is this special common denominator to the show.
The subjects, style of the Barbizon and Hudson River school painters; genre scenes akin to both the French painter Millet and William Sidney Mount; and neo-classic marble sculpture that could easily be mistaken for the work of Hiram Powers.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation of this show is the fact that there seems to have been no "Afro-American" art as such until recent decades -- no art in which black artists reflected either upon their own social isolation, or upon the oppression, despair and anger of their fellow black Americans.
The reasons are not hard to understand. Classically schooled, these five artists must have been as well aware as anyone else of what would sell and what would not. Despite their own social concerns as black people in a white world, in the end they preferred to contribute as artists first to the prevailing styles and conventions of American art of the time.
The show reveals all of these artists to be as good as (and sometimes better than) some far-better-known white colleagues. Only one, however, is likely to be found in the standard texts on 19th-century American art.
That exception is Joshua Johnston (c. 1765-1830), the earliest artist in the group, whose incisive portraits hang in many museums and have often been sent abroad as cultural embassadors for the U.S. Johnson's popularity was due in large part to the "folk" look of his portraits. In fact, it was not known until the 1930s that he was "a gentleman of colour," as the city records of Baltimore described him, and a former slave.
All of these artists achieved considerable success and fame in their lifetimes. Edmonia Lewis (1853-1900) had at least two known $50,000 commissions for her neo-classical marble sculptures, most of which were made in Rome. Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) was widely honored in Paris, where he finally settled and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1923. His honors and awards are displayed in a small anteroom.
Edward Bannister himself won a top prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, though he was barred from the awards ceremony until officials were summoned. He received his bronze medal in private, after public festivities were over.
But the most surprising talent to emerge from this show, is landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson (182-1872), son of a Scottish-Canadian father and a black mother, who took him to Canada as a child so that he might be raised in a prejudice-free environment and later to Cincinnati. He ended up producing paintings which come very close in quality and content to the glowing landscapes of Thomas Cole, though the mood is less awestruck.
Duncanson spent half of his life in England and Scotland, traveling to Italy and elsewhere in Europe, where he was caught up with the romantic writers like Tennyson, whose poem "The Lotus Easters" inspired one of many landscape paintings with literary themes.
Duncanson's popularity abroad is evidenced by the fact that he sold paintings to the King of Sweden, Queen Victoria and assorted other English royalty, including the ancestor of a baroness who recently sold her beautiful "Falls of Minnehaha" to Providence art dealer Edward Shein, who has been responsible for rediscovering many of these paintings and divering them to the Museum of African Art.
Accoding to Shein, Duncanson's paintings, when they can be found, now sell in five figures. He has also been offered $100,000 for a painting by Bannister, by one of the many black movie actors who have begun to collect these works. Bill Cosby is among them, and recently invited Shein to discuss 19th-century black artists on the "Tonight" show when he was serving as host.
Afro-American artists, like many of their white counter parts, went abroad to seek success. Tanner skirted the modernism raging around him, and produced a large body of paintings, many of them with religious subject matter, but always suberted to the larger landscape theme. Oddly, it is American painters Albert Pinkham Ryder and Maurice Prendergast whom he most resembles both in technique and overall look.
The time has long since come and gone when the five artists in this show should have been mainstreamed into American art history of the 19th century. Since Afro-American art of the period does not really exist as such, how long will such separatist shows be necessary?
"We will have to continue showing the art of black Americans separately until they're included in the history books on American art -- that is the goal," says David Driskell, University of Maryland Art Historian. "Recent books on the subject still leave them out. I will continue teaching courses on the subject until American college faculties and scholars recognize that this material should be part of the whole. These artists did not paint with isolation in mind. They should not be isolated now."
Driskell, the foremost authority on the subject, will give a lecture on these artists at the Museum of African Art on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The public is welcome. The exhibition continues through Arpil.