African American Artists before the Twentieth Century

Photo Essay

Tanner, Henry Ossawa. The Thankful Poor, 1894. Photo Credit: courtesy of Art Resource, NY.

Due to the enormous difficulties encountered by African Americans in the pursuit of the fine arts, evidence of black painters before the late nineteenth century comes not from paintings presently in museums or private collections, but from newspapers advertising their services. As with early American art in general, African American art largely consisted of folk arts and crafts produced anonymously for everyday use. As a result, very little work produced before the Civil War, which we would today identify as “art,” survives. In spite of the difficulties dealt with by artists, both free and slave, skilled African American fine artists began to appear as early as the late colonial period. Using images and text, Anthony Aiello and Jason Miller examine the lives and art of eight African American men and women who found success as painters or sculptors before the twentieth century.

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