30 Chapter 10 – Edward Mitchell Bannister


Emily Becker

Audio Recording of chapter available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_p1DcVasGVkaR0ecpWKnMEiA6AS_r1bD/view?usp=sharing

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Untitled, charcoal and chalk on paper, ca. 1885.

When I had started researching Edward M. Bannister I had originally thought that finding information about a man born around the same time as photographic documentation would be easy to find. If we are able to keep knowledge and information from thousands of years ago, a man who lived only one-hundred-and-fifty years ago would be even easier to find out about. However, it would seem that due to his African American heritage his fame was buried in history.

Bannister was born in 1828 in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, his mother Hannah Alexander Bannister was a free Canadian black, and his father was a Barbados native.[1] Both passed when he was young, first his father when Bannister was only a toddler then his mother in 1844 his teen years.[2] Before his mother passed Bannister recollects that she had coddled his growing affection for art, encouraging him to draw and color in his spare time.[3] He did have an older brother who was of age to live on his own, so with the passing of their parents his brother moved away to Boston, USA, leaving Bannister in the care of a white foster family.[4] He was under the care of Mr. Harris Hatch, who was a wealthy lawyer in St. Andrews which ended up an opportunity for Bannister that he did not look down.[5] He was able to enjoy the luxuries of his new home and used his time and available resources that was Mr. Hatch’s house and library to study and copy images from the books and paintings all around him.[6]

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Palmer River, oil on canvas, 1885

As Bannister grew into adulthood, he did the customary thing for young men in the Maritimes and took a job at sea though he had never given up his desire to become an artist, and every time the ship would port in Boston and Newyork Bannister would take it upon himself to use his little bit of free time visiting galleries and museums.[7] In 1848 Bannister took the plunge and moved to Boston where he dipped his toes in different artistic jobs like barbering and photograph tinting.[8] Bannister ended up obtaining a job as a hairstylist in one of Christiana Cartreaux’s salons for Boston’s elite, she took an interest in Bannister’s passion for creating and the two fell in love and wed in 1857.[9] After the wedding, with his new wife’s support he left working at the salon and started as a full-time artist.


In 1871 the two moved to Providence, Rhode Island where Cartreaux was originally from, to live out the rest of their days, though they never had children they stayed busy by creating and being activists in their community. They held benefits for the soldiers who had opted to serve in the Civil War without pay instead of accepting the lower pay for black men. The Bannisters’ efforts along with the efforts of those of the Boston Colored Ladies’ Sanitary Commision helped to support soldiers of color and their families as they boycott the pay discrimination for more than a year.[10] According to African American Lives, a collection of biographies of noteworthy Black Americans, Edward Bannister reportedly said of his wife in his later years:

“I would have made out very poorly had it not been for her, and my greatest successes have come through her, either through the criticism of my pictures, or the advice she would give me in the matter of placing them in public”.[11]

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Newspaper Boy, oil on canvas, 1869

Bannister enrolled in evening classes at the local Lowell Institute and started creating at the Boston Studio Building.[12] Although he did not receive extensive academic training, Bannister was able to study under William Rimmer; sculptor and painter, who was an instructor at Lowell at the time.[13] Not many of Bannister’s works from the 1850’s and 1860’s have survived leaving scholars with little to speculate at when it comes to Bannister’s early style.[14]  However, it is clear through his many pieces that he was a persistent experimenter and though primarily is known for his landscapes, he created many other paintings of black portraits, biblical scenes, still life’s, and other genres.[15] He also wrote the manuscript, The Artist and His Critics (1886) which indicated that he developed his own artistic theory in Transcendentalism.[16] This ideology centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson, which was flourishing by the 1850’s, operated with a sense that the new era was at hand and urged that each person in society finds, in the words of Emerson “an original relation to the universe”, sought through solitude in nature and in writing, or in Bannister’s case, in his paintings.[17] Bannister found inspiration from other landscape artists, notedly William Morris Hunt and the Barbizon School which Hunt had learned his skills from. [18]

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Driving the Cows Home, oil on canvas, 1881

The style of Bannister’s works are true to the characteristics of Transcendentalist ideology and Barbizon School imagery, showing a desire for equality by containing no social or racial overtones within his work, as well as showing self-reliance and optimism through beautiful bucolic scenes. He worked mostly with oil and watercolor paints, he found solitude in the nature around his home, and created literally hundreds of land and seascapes. Bannister’s mid-period landscapes of the 1870’s were executed with heavy impasto and few details while later landscapes of the 1880’s-90’s use a gentler impasto and loosely applied broken color, similar to impressionist techniques.[19] Attracted to picturesque motifs, he was able to evoke tranquil moods with his paintings, which became a hallmark of his style, as he portrayed nature as a calm and submissive force.[20]

Bannister’s name rose to fame in 1876 when he entered his oil landscape “Under the Oaks”, which has since been lost, into the first National Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, and it won the first-prize bronze medal.[21] The judges ‘reconsidered’ the award when they found that Bannister was black, but the other white competitors upheld the decision, making Bannister the first African American to receive a national award.[22] At first, I did not think that white men of the 19th century would stand behind a black man as they had, since the world today is still very racist, however, Bannister was a respected man of high social standing in his society, skin color aside.  Fellow artist and friend John Nelson Arnold wrote about Bannister saying:

“He went to nature with a poet’s feeling, skies, rocks, trees and distances were all absorbed and distilled through the alembic of his soul and projected upon the canvas with virile force and a poetic beauty that will in time place him in the front rank of American artists.” [23]

In 1880 Bannister and three other Providence painters founded the Providence Art Club which inducted twelve other members, and the group went on to lay the foundation for the educational institute now known as Rhode Island School of Design.[24] Bannister’s wife Christiana went on to lead the efforts to establish a home for aging women of color in Providence, known today as Bannister Nursing Care Center where she herself spent her last years before passing in 1903.[25] In 1901 Bannister passed suddenly during a church prayer meeting, and shortly after his death the Providence Art Club exhibited one hundred and one of Bannister’s paintings owned by Providence collectors.[26] Bannister’s grave plot is rather extensive marked by a granite boulder ten feet high, relieved with a carving of an artist palette, Bannister’s name, and a pipe, also adorned with a bronze plaque that reads:

“ This pure and lofty soul … who, while he portrayed nature, walked with God.” [27]

All this information that made Edward Mitchell Bannister check out to be an amazing part of Canadian and American history had been shrouded and lost due to the same racism that he spent a lot of his life trying to fight. Black artists are in the collections of every great museum, just maybe not put out on show.[28] He was able to win the hearts of society back in the 19th century with his timeless landscapes, he could easily do it again today if our museums did our artists of color throughout history, the justice they deserve.

Edward Mitchell Bannister, Boston Street Scene (Boston Common), oil on canvas, 1898-99


“America’s Art Museums and the Broad Canvas of American Racial Thought.” JSTOR. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 16 (Summer, 1997). https://www.jstor.org/stable/2962897.

Bell, Clive. “Barbizon.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 47, no. 272 (1925): 254-257. http://www.jstor.org/stable/862657.

Costa, Traci Lee. “Edward Mitchell Bannister and the Aesthetics of Idealism” Roger Williams University, 2017. http://docs.rwu.edu/aah_theses/1

“Edward Mitchell Bannister.” Smithsonian American Art Museum online. Accessed September 17, 2020. http://americanart.si.edu/artist/edward-mitchell-bannister-226.

Floyd, Minuette. “More Than Just a Field Trip… Making Relevant Circular Connections Through Museum Experiences.” Art Education 55, no. 5 (2002): 39-45. doi: 10.2307/3193957.

Goodman, Russell. “Transcendentalism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), accessed October 8, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/enteries/transcendentalism/.

Heller, Diane. “Edward M. Bannister: An American Artist.” Accessed September 30, 2020. http://www.edwardbannister.com/index.html.

Joyette, Anthony. “Three Great Black Canadian Artists.” Kola 26, no. 2 (2014): 63 . Gale OneFile: CPI.Q. https://link-gale-com.exproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/apps/doc/A393211753/CPI?u=red68720&sid=CPI&xid=430a07d4.

Kirwin, Liza. “Regional Reports.” Archives of American Art Journal 24, no. 1 (1984): 30. Accessed October 8, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1557349.

Skerrett, Joseph T. “Edward M. Bannister, Afro-American Painter (1828-1901).” Negro History Bulletin 41, no. 3 (1978): 829. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44213838.

“The Club’s History.” The Providence Art Club. Accessed October 23, 2020.  https://providenceartclub.org/about/the_clubs_history/.

Walk-Morris, Tatiana. “You’ve Probably Never Heard Of This Black Beauty Hero – But Here’s Why You Need To.” Bustle, February 9, 2020. https://www.bustle.com/p/madame-christiana-carteaux-bannister-is-the-black-beauty-hero-you-havent-heard-of-7984997.

  1. “Edward Mitchell Bannister,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, accessed September 17, 2020, https://americanart.si.edu/artist/edward-mitchell-bannister-226.
  2. Smithsonian.
  3. Anthony Joyette, “Three Great Black Canadian Artists,” Gale OneFile: CPI.Q, 2014, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/apps/doc/A393211753/CPI?u=red68720&sid-CPI&xid-430a07d4.
  4. Joyette, “Three Great Black Canadian Artists”.
  5. Joyette.
  6. Joyette.
  7. Joyette.
  8. Joyette.
  9. Joyette.
  10. Tatiana Walk-Morris, ”You’ve Probably Never Heard Of This Black Beauty Hero – But Here’s Why You Need To,” Bustle, February 9, 2020, https://www.bustle.com/p/madame-christiana-carteaux-bannister-is-the-black-beauty-hero-you-havent-heard-of-7984997.
  11. Tatiana Walk-Morris.
  12. ”Edward Mitchell Bannister,” Smithsonian.
  13. Smithsonian.
  14. Smithsonian.
  15. Smithsonian.
  16. Traci Lee Costa, ”Edward Mitchell Bannister and the Aesthetics of Idealism,” Roger Williams University (2017), 8. http://docs.rwu.edu/aah_theses/1.
  17. Russell Goodman, ”Transcendentalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified August 30, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/transcendentalism/.
  18. Anthony Joyette,” Three Great Black Canadian Artists”.
  19. ”Edward Mitchell Bannister,” Smithsonian.
  20. Smithsonian.
  21. Smithsonian.
  22. Smithsonian.
  23. Liza Kirwin, ”Regional Reports,” Archives of American Art Journal 24, no. 1 (1984): 30, accessed October 8, 2020, https://link-gale-com.exproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/apps/doc/A393211753/CPI?u=red68720&sid=CPI&xid=430a07d4
  24. ”Edward Mitchell Bannister,” Smithsonian.
  25. Tatiana Walk-Morris, ”You’ve Probably Never Heard Of This Black Beauty Hero – But Here’s Why You Need To”.
  26. Smithsonian.
  27. Smithsonian.
  28. ”America’s Art Museums and the Broad Canvas of American Racial Thought,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Summer 1997, 49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2962897.


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