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Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in 19th-Century America

ROBERT SCOTT DUNCANSON (1821/22-1872)
Landscape with Rainbow, 1859
Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 52 1/4 in. (76.3 x 132.7 cm.)
Gift of Leonard Granoff
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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SHARING TRADITIONS: FIVE BLACK ARTISTS IN 19TH-CENTURY AMERICA, SELECTIONS FROM THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Selected from the extensive holdings in African American art by National museum of American Art Curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, this exhibition will include approximately 40 oil paintings and sculptures by five pioneering Black American artists of the 19th century: Joshua Johnson, Robert S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Edmonia Lewis, and Henry O. Tanner.

Listed in Baltimore directories as a portrait painter of limner, for thirty years Joshua Johnson, (1765-1830) was the first Black American to attain fame as a potrait painter. Also identified in the directories as a "free Negro Householder," his origins are nebulous; scholars have suggested he may have been a West Indian emigrant to the United States or a free mulatto slave. Johnson's portraits are painted in the venerable traditions of Charles Peale Polk and Charles Willson peale. They include the costumes and domestic attributes of the landed white gentry, coupled with a severity of line and expression which reveal his earnest, solemn approach. Among the portraitists of the early period, whether trained or self-taught, Johnson is considered to have developed an arresting, distinctive style indicative of considerable talent.

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872) is generally considered to be the first major Black landscape painter in America. in the early 1840s he lived in Cincinnati, where he associated with Worthington Whittredge and Eastman Johnson and was patronized by prominent Abolitionists who helped to sponsor his trips to Europe in 1853, 1864, 1870. Self-taught, Duncanson nonetheless excelled in creating the atmospheric and emotional effects associated with the Hudson River School. Inspired by his European travels, he also adopted the motif of the landscape vista with classical ruins, emblematic of the decline of Greco-Roman civilization. Dunscanson's fascination with Europe was not simply that of an American abroad. Born to a Scottish-Canadian father and a free Black mother, Duncanson emphasized his Euripean ancestry by painting numerous landscapes of the Scottish highlands.

Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901), as a student of William Rimmer's in Boston, was among the first African American artists to obtain professional instruction. He is said to have painted in part to disprove the current notion that the Negro was incapable of producing art. Like Duncanson, Bannister appears to have eschewed topical radical subjects; he worked throughout his career in a brushy, tonal manner influenced by painters of both the Hudson River and Barbizon schools, Winning a bronze medal at the 1876 Centennial exhibition, Bannister gained national prominence. Well-educated in Shakespeare and other English literature, as well as the classics, mythology and the Bible, Bannister was a founder of the Providence Art Club which later inspired the Rhode Island School of Design. Both the Centennial prize and his involvement in Providence's cultural life reflect the extent to which Bannister achieved full acknowledgement from the established art community of his time.

Of mixed Indian and Black ancestry, and noted for her fiery temperament, Edmonia Lewis (1843-1900) was the first Black woman in America to achieve national and international recognition as an artist. She was, as well, the first African American sculptor to attain a national reputation. After studying at Oberlin College, an experience marked by controversy and scandal, and with the sculptor Edmond Brackett in Boston, she moved to Rome under the patronage of American abolitionists and the William Wetmore Story family. Lewis's marble sculptures represent a bold and individual departure in subject matter, in that works such as the Arrowmaker and his Daughter and Hagar in the Wilderness testify to her sense of racial identity.

The son of an influential bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the French national Academy, Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) bridged the gap between his African American origins and the height of European academic tradition filtered through a native self-reliance, a blend which distinguished his paintings of Black genre subjects prior to 1895. like the other artists in this study, he adhered to the styles and modes fashionable in his generation--in his case, a taste for spiritual, symbolic painting, magically suggestive and impressionistic in technique. While his painting, magically suggestive and impressionistic in technique. While his paintings lie well within the mainstream, Tanner's use of genre, biblical, and North African subjects also suggest relevance for Black audiences. Together these artists' works reveal both their ambition to participate in mainstream traditions of America and Europe and their special concerns for ethnic identity. Explanatory materials and a 96-page, illustrated catalog accompany the exhibition. 

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