WHEN EDWARD BANNISTER read in a newspaper that his landscape, "Under the Oaks," had won the first- place bronze medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, he hurried, incredulous, to the committee room.
A friend of his later recounted that Bannister overheard people in the crowded room asking, "Why is this colored person here?" And the official whom he asked about the prize was insolent in replying -- until he learned that Bannister was the winner. Though it's been said there were even attempts to revoke the prize, it remained the first national art award made to a black American.
Bannister is one of five 19th-century black American artists being celebrated in "Sharing Traditions" at the Museum of American Art, and his experience of success against the odds is typical.
He shares the stage with American expatriate Henry O. Tanner, classical sculptor Edmonia Lewis, Hudson-River landscapist Robert Scott Duncanson, and Baltimore's Joshua Johnson.
One of a mere handful of black artists active before 1840, Johnson was an itinerant portraitist like Erastus Salisbury Field. When rediscovered in the 1930s, Johnson was nicknamed the "brass-tack" artist, for his habit of outlining the sofas his subjects sat on with numerous tacks. Of about 80 naive portraits now attributed to him, five are of sea captains (for the wife, in case the seafarer didn't return) and many are families; only two portray blacks. Unfortunately, black artists in the 19th century avoided such subjects, for fear it would diminish popularity with their white patrons.
Racism was such that Henry Ossawa Tanner, the most accomplished artist of the five, decided to live out his life in Paris. "Sad that I cannot live where my heart is," he wrote. Likewise, sculptor Lewis chose to work in Italy, where she began sculpting black figures such as "Forever Free," which shows a couple breaking chains and giving thanks.
In the 1880s, Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts -- the only black American enrolled there at the time. He moved to Paris in the early 1890s, where he was considered the dean of American painters.
He painted portraits, seascapes, landscapes. Duncanson also did traditional landscapes. But unlike Duncanson and the other painters, Tanner was a pioneer in black genre themes. In this show, "The Banjo Lesson," with light streaming in the window on a boy sitting on an old man's knee, is very affecting.
Tanner's paintings are infused with impressionism. There's a moving portrait of his mother here; profiling her in a rocking chair, he closely follows the composition of Whistler's Mother. And one of the loveliest paintings in the show is his "Salome." Unfortunately, with cracked paint, it's also in the worst condition. Salome, nude under a diaphanous drape, gives the hint of a smile in a shadow. It's an engaging image, but only from a distance, where time's damage is invisible. SHARING TRADITIONS: FIVE BLACK ARTISTS IN 19TH- CENTURY AMERICA -- At the Museum of American Art through April 7.