Edward Mitchell Bannister (ca. 1828 – January 9, 1901) was a Black Canadian-American Tonalist painter. Like other Tonalists, his style and predominantly pastoral subject matter were drawn from his admiration for Millet and the French Barbizon School.
Bannister was born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick and moved to New England in the late 1840s, where he remained for the rest of his life. While Bannister was well known in the artistic community of his adopted home of Providence, Rhode Island and admired within the wider East Coast art world (he won a bronze medal for his large oil "Under the Oaks" at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial), he was largely forgotten for almost a century for a complexity of reasons, principally connected with racial prejudice. Bannister began his official career as an artist when an article in the 1867 New York Herald belittled both him and his work, stating ““- the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it.” Prior to working as a painter, Bannister worked as barber and tinted photos. In the late 1850s he attended lectures given by D. William Rimmer, a sculptor noted for his accuracy in rendering the human figure. Over the course of his career, Bannister was inspired by the Barbizon school-inspired paintings of William Morris Hunt who had studied in Europe and held numerous public exhibitions in Boston around the 1860s.
With the ascendency of the civil rights movement in the 1970s, his work was again celebrated and collected. In 1978, Rhode Island College dedicated its Art Gallery in Bannister's name with the exhibition: "Four From Providence ~ Alston, Bannister, Jennings & Prophet". This event was attended and commented on by numerous notable political figures of the time, and supported by the Rhode Island Committee for Humanities and the Rhode Island Historical Society. Events like this, across the entire cultural landscape, have ensured that his artwork and life will not be again forgotten. Although committed to freedom and equal rights for Afro-Americans, he chose not to inject those issues into his work, adopting instead a spiritual philosophy and individually expressive style which represented harmony and liberty on a more universal plane.
Although primarily known for his idealised landscapes and seascapes, Bannister also executed portraits, biblical and mythological scenes, and genre scenes. An intellectual autodidact, his tastes in literature were typical of an educated Victorian painter, including Spenser, Virgil, Ruskin and Tennyson, from whose works much of his iconography can be traced. His work was stunning, oftentimes reflecting the composition, mood and influences of French Barbizon painters Jean Baptise mille Corot, Jean Francois Millete, and Charles-Francois Daubigny. He had an affinity for Native American thought which was reflected in the spirituality of his work. Progressively his understanding for color / color mixing improved and the quality of work increased, really digging into naturalistic territory.
Bannister died of a heart attack in 1901 while attending a prayer meeting at his church, Elmwood Avenue Free Baptist Church. He is buried in the North Burial Ground in Providence.
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