African-American Artists 1

Tanner_portrait_1902 by Eakins

My copy of Edward Bannister's Under the Oaks. Mine is 9x12; his was either 36x54" or 48x60" (this may be based on the frame). His and mine are both oil on canvas, but mine was done with a palette knife.

These 3 artists were contemporaries; it is possible they knew each other. It is very likely they knew OF each other. Artists do not create in a vacuum.


This sculpture of by Lewis was discovered after having been painted blue!

To be released July 15, 2021: Race and Racism in Nineteenth Century Art: The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis



Tanner was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim.  His father was a college educated teacher and minister with the AME church, his mother a former slave who escaped slavery by the Underground Railroad. To discourage his early interest in art, he was sent to learn the milling business, but it proved too much for his frail health. Subsequently his parents encouraged his art interest, and eventually he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins.


It was about this time he declared, "I cannot fight prejudice and paint at the same time."


 In 1891 he moved to France, and studied at the Académie Julian, with notables such as Gerome. He did align himself with either the avant-garde art movement in Europe, or the Harlem Renaissance in the U.S.


Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) 



During a visit to western North Carolina for health reasons he created a number of sketches, which later became the source for The Banjo Lesson" in 1893 (now at Hampden University)

His religious upbringing influenced many of his paintings, and private funding paid for trips to the Holy Land.

much more info


Abraham’s Oak (SAAM) 1905. This tree still exists, outside of Hebron, Palestine.

May have been inspired by a  pilgrimage.  

more info on the tree

FROM Bannister's sketch of Under the Oaks,  for his award-winning Under the Oaks (now lost). I used some of the color saturation from Woman Near a Pond (above), even though the light is coming from a different angle, and my trees are lighter.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861, oil on canvas

Day 6: 3 artists at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 (a world fair)

Robert Duncanson exhibited work at this event, but I have not been able to find out which pieces he had in the show. Edmonia Lewis had several works there, and won an award for her scupture, "Death of Cleopatra" (see Day 4, above) . Edward Bannister won first prize (a bronze medal) for his painting "Under the Oaks". This was almost rescinded when the judges discovered he was black, but the other artists insisted he keep the award. He was given the award, but he was not allowed to walk across the sage with the others winnters). Anothe artist we will look at later was Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Joshua Johnson.

The location of Bannister's painting is unknown, and this has really bothered me. I  challenged myself to recreate a version of his painting from the sketch he did. I used colors that would have been available to him at the time, and I used other paintings by him as a reference for color and value. His sketch told me all I needed to know about light source, type of weather, etc. As I poured over the sketch, I discovered more and more cows!

Day 7: Henry Ossawa Tanner


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Portrait of Tanner by Thomas Eakins

Tanner won an Honorable Mention and a Third Place award at two Paris Salons

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The Quarry, 1855-1862, oil on canvas, 14x23”

 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts   more info

Duncanson was a free African-American who established an international reputation during the years  around the Civil War. He had no formal training, but would have learned by copying engravings, sketching from nature, and doing portraits. He was described in the American press as “the best landscape painter in the west”.   

His patron, Nicholas Longworth (one of the richest men in the United States at the time), commissioned a series of 8 monumental landscape murals for the inside of his mansion. This stamp of approval ensured Duncanson's fame. 


His first trip to Europe in 1853 further advanced his skills and confidence: “My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent," he wrote. "Of all the Landscapes I saw in Europe, (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged . . . . Someday I will return.”


His painting, Land of the Lotus Eaters (inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson,who did see the painting), is considered a masterpiece, even in his own times. It was purchased from him by the King of Sweden. 


read more

Many people commented on Duncanson’s mixed heritage and a family member actually suggested that he might have tried to pass as white (Duncanson was light-skinned).  To that Duncanson wrote: “Mark what I say here in black and white: I have no color on the brain, all I have on the brain is paint….I care not for color: ‘Love is my principle, order is the basis, progress is the end.’”


Finding his grave

Day 5: Robert S. Duncanson 1821/22-1872

She exhibited at the same exhibition in Philadephia as Eward Bannister (see "Day 3").

“Forever Free", marble, 1867      more info

“In 1878,  she told the New York Times: “I was practically driven to Rome, in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”

from the New York Times

"Her career at Oberlin ended abruptly when she was accused of poisoning two of her white roommates. Lewis was acquitted of the charge, though she had to endure not only a highly publicized trial but also a severe beating by white vigilantes. Subsequently accused of stealing art supplies, she was not permitted to graduate from Oberlin.”         

from Smithsonian American Art Museum


Finding her grave

“Death of Cleopatra”, 1876, marble, 63x41x46”

for Philadphial Centennial    more info

Two years ago I saw this scupture at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. It. Is. Spectacular. And life size. Quite commanding. She was about 4'11". Tiny. She would have had to use a ladder to get to parts of this.

"As an artist she transcended constraints, and as a woman of color, she confronted a society that wished to categorize her.”   “Her Roman studio was a required stop for the moneyed class on the Grand Tour. Frederick Douglass visited her. Ulysses S. Grant sat for her. She made busts of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”   “When the United States celebrated its centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, she was invited to submit her work. Her piece, “The Death of Cleopatra” — more than 3,000 pounds of Carrara marble depicting the Egyptian queen with one breast bared and quite dead — created a stir for its commanding realism.”


Bust of Longfellow, marble,  29x16x12” 1871, Harvard University Art Museum

“Edward Mitchell Bannister's determination to become a successful artist was largely fueled by an inflammatory article he read in the New York Herald in 1867, that stated 'the Negro seems to have an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it.' [Bannister set out to prove them wrong]. Ironically, less than a decade later, in 1876, Bannister was the first African-American artist to receive a national award.”  


“Since Bannister's artistic studies were limited, it is remarkable, indeed, that within five years after his arrival in Providence, one of Bannister's paintings was accepted in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The painting, Under the Oaks, was selected for the first-prize bronze medal. Bannister related in considerable detail that the judges became indignant and originally wanted to "reconsider" the award upon discovering that Bannister was African American. The white competitors, however, upheld the decision and Bannister was awarded the bronze medal.”  However, he did not receive the award with the other recipients. [He was not allowed to walk across the stage with other artists.]


He became one of Providence, Rhode Island's leading painters in the 1870s and '80s. 


Bannister's  work is reminiscent of the Barbican School. He painted in Boston Studio Building, and took classes at the Lowell Institute with sculptor-anatomist  Dr. William Rimmer.


from  the Smithsonian American Art Museum 


It was a large-scale painting, 4x5'

Four Cows in a Meadow, 2013, oil on canvas, 12x19 in. (unframed). Newport Art Museum, Newport RI

Moonlight Marine, 2013, oil on canvas, 22x30 in. (unframed). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA   Read more

Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance), 2014, oil on canvas, 54x43 in. (unframed). First place in 2016 for The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Sketch of Under the Oaks,  for his award-winning Under the Oaks (now lost). About the sketch and painting

Edward M. Bannister was the only major African-American artist of the late nineteenth century who developed his talents without the benefit of European exposure

Day 4: Edmonia Lewis   1844-1907

Day 3: Edward M. Bannister, 1828-1901

Kehinde Wiley has a Masters Degree in painting from Yale University. His work began addressing the question: What would it look like if marginalized people were put in positions of power in paintings? He replaced European aristocracy with contemporary black subjects in famous paintings, chosen by the sitter. This young man takes on the pose from "Willem van Heythuysen", but in his own clothes. (at the VMFA)

In "An Economy of Grace", Wiley does the same with women, but even goes to the extent of having their dresses designed by Riccardo Tisci of Giverny, mimicking the same action of past painters who would select or design the dresses of their sitters.

And of course, President Barack Obama chose him to paint his presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

African-American Artists

In thinking about the NMWA #5womenartists challenge in March, I asked myself, "Could I name at least one African-American artist each day for every day in February?" In about 5 minutes I had 22 names, and after focusing, I had so many more. Quite a few have art in the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and many are from or live in or near Richmond. My criteria (as with the women artists), was if I could remember their name OR the work of art.  

Willem van Heythuysen, 2006, oil on canvas, 96x72 in.  (unframed)

Willem van Heythuysen is owned by the VMFA, now hanging in the "Tapestry Hall", in the south end of the original building.

Here is a link to the National Portrait Gallery about the portrait Wiley did of President Obama 

Day 1: Kehinde Wiley, b. 1977

Rumors of War is owned by the VMFA, at the Arthur Ashe Boulevard entrance.

 Sherald was the first woman to receive First Place in The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.



They Call Me Redbone, but I'd Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009, oil on canvas, 54x43 in. (unframed). at the National Gallery of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.  Article

The title is autobiographical

Here is a fascinating biography of Ms. Sherald, including a successful heart transplant she had at age 39. Her titles tend to be autobiographical, and provide additionla insight into the painting.

Amy Sherald received her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her portraits with simple backgrounds and skin tones in values of grey. She wants her figures to be notable, not for their skin color, but for their familiarity. 

More in article about Amy Sherald from the National Portrait Gallery.

Excellent article from the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


The dress worn by Mrs. Obama in the painting is a rendition of the one made for the First Lady by Milly, created by the co-founder Michelle Smith for this occasion. 

Here is a link to the National Portrait Gallery about the portrait Sherald did of First Lady Michelle Obama. 2018

Day 2: Amy Sherald, b. 1973