Photo Essay - African American Artists before the Twentieth Century

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley (1773)Anonymous, Phillis Wheatley (1773). Engraving after Scipio Moorhead. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The earliest significant black fine artist was an African slave. Scipio Moorhead (fl. 1773), a poet and painter, was owned by Reverend John Moorhead from Boston. Scipio was taught to draft and paint by Moorhead's wife, Sarah, an artist and teacher. Well-known in Boston as an artist, Scipio was commissioned by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poems, to execute the portrait that appears here. Taken from the frontispiece of her book, the image is actually an etching of the original by Moorhead. His ink drawing of Wheatley sitting at a writing table with a contemplative upward gaze typical of portraits of the era, a quill pen poised over a sheet of paper, an open book and inkwell on the desk, brought praise from Wheatley, who included in her collection a poem in honor of the artist, "To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works."

Portrait of Adelia Ellender (c. 1803-1805Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Adelia Ellender (c. 1803-1805). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The best-known African American artist of the early republic, Joshua Johnson (fl. 1795-1824) was born a slave, but had been freed by 1796. Johnson lived in Baltimore, where he became known for his portraits, especially of children, usually shown standing, gazing at the viewer, and with a decorative device, such as books, or fruit. In the portrait of Adelia Ellender shown here, the child stands beside flowers while pointing at a butterfly. His style is closely associated with that of limners, self-taught artists who painted in a flat style with their subjects in stilted poses. Although the subjects in Johnson's art are often flat, he creates depth by overlapping figures and by placing his sitters in geometric spaces that provide a sense of space (as above, where the child stands before a wall in front of the flowers to her left, which appear closer to her than the plant to her right).

Portrait of Isabella Taylor (1805)Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Isabella Taylor (c. 1805). Courtesy of The Newark Museum / Art Resource, NY

Most of Johnson's subjects were white. His early portraits are generally of upper-class subjects like Isabella Taylor, who sat for Johnson around 1805. Johnson here creates depth by seating his subject at a table or desk, her chair pushed slightly away and back, one arm resting on the table and holding a note, the other following the line of her seated body. Adding to the effect are the geometric overlappings of the folded note in her hand and the texture of her dress, especially the sleeves. Johnson's later paintings are generally of middle- and working-class subjects, and though more than eighty of his signed works survive, only two are of black persons; the portraits are thought to be of Daniel and Abner Coker, prominent clerics in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Landscape painting: Pompeii (1855)Robert Scott Duncanson, Pompeii (1855). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The struggle for and attainment of liberty and civil rights during the antebellum, Civil War, and postwar periods provided African American fine artists the freedom (literally and figuratively) needed to practice their crafts. The most prominent black painter of his day, Robert Scott Duncanson directly benefited from the civil rights struggle of the nineteenth century. Duncanson first exhibited in 1842 in the Cincinnati area. In 1853 the Freeman's Aid Society of Ohio sent him abroad to study. His art benefited greatly from his time in Europe, which he wrote "shed a new light over my path." The painting shown here, from 1855, depicts the ruins at Pompeii, Vesuvius in the background, light bathing the entire scene: the two people in the foreground examining ruins; sailboats on the shining, still water; even the side of the volcano in the background—everything calm and bright. The painting, however, contains elements of darkness that can be understood in terms of the political landscape in America at the time, with the country in the throes of armed combat between slavery supporters and abolitionists in Bleeding Kansas and on the brink of national civil war. Looked at this way, the ruins of Pompeii, though bathed in light, are the remnants of a civilization whose time has passed (which can be understood to be the slave South), while Vesuvius (the threat of civil war) smolders on the horizon.

Landscape with a Lake (1864)Robert Scott Duncanson, Landscape with a Lake (1864). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Upon his return from abroad, Bannister began painting abolitionists' portraits, but he was best known for his landscapes in the Ohio River Valley style (influenced by the artist Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School painters). In 1863 Duncanson left for Europe again, but the Civil War forced him to travel first to Montreal, where he stayed for two years, quickly gaining recognition as Montreal's best artist and stimulating a new generation of artists to establish the first Canadian school of landscape painting. As with his landscape paintings in general, the 1864 painting reproduced here can be read as a commentary on the state of affairs in the United States. The muted tones and hazy colors, the drooping trees and ruined fence, the scene empty of people, the heavy shadows and threatening sky all reflect the hopeless emptiness and devastation of the war, at that point in its third year.

Landscape painting: Waterfall at Mont-Morency (1864)Robert Scott Duncanson, Waterfall at Mont-Morency (1864). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Duncanson's Civil War-era paintings often have a dark and heavy feeling to them, as the war continued to drag and the toll continued to mount. A stark realism exists in many of them, including the painting shown here, a scene covered in shadows and empty of people. In an earlier, more peaceful period, such a landscape would speak of the regenerative powers and transcendental properties of nature, of the new political order that exists in the "New World," of Manifest Destiny and future greatness; realism often combined with the sublime or with sentimentalism, undercutting the political reality of a nation of slaves, built on the lands of conquered and mistreated native peoples. In Waterfall at Mont-Morency, however, the sentimentality is gone and while the sublime exists, it threatens and refuses to uplift the viewer, whose gaze is pulled away from the stormy sky by the downward motion of the waterfall and the crushing turmoil at its base.

Untitled landscape painting of harbor (1868)Edward Mitchell Bannister, Untitled (Moon over a Harbor, Wharf Scene with Full Moon and Masts of Boats, c. 1868). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

A native of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Edward M. Bannister (1826-1901) would eventually settle in Boston, where he went on to become one of the earliest African American painters to receive national attention for his work. At first a portraitist as well, Bannister eventually became known primarily for his landscape, and especially his seaside, scenes. The untitled painting known as "Moon over a Harbor, Wharf Scene with Full Moon and Masts of Boats" (c. 1868) is typical of his work, showing the influence of the Barbizon School of French landscape painting, which held that nature ought to be painted in the presence of nature, and not replicated from memory in a studio. The soft moonlight over silver water and a shifting, indistinct landscape are typical of this style.

Portrait of Newspaper boy (1869)Edward Mitchell Bannister, Newspaper Boy (1869). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Though Bannister is primarily known for his idyllic and evocative images of rural landscapes, Newspaper Boy (1869) remains one of the painter's most familiar and much-admired works. The delicately rendered and sensitive, though undeniably savvy and streetwise, portrait probably represents one of the familiar faces from Bannister's adopted city of Boston, where Bannister had once worked as a hairdresser and had married the famous wigmaker and hairdresser, Christiana Cartreaux, a Narragansett Indian. Some observers have wondered whether the image of the racially ambiguous child depicted in Newspaper Boy might represent one of Bannister's only attempts to confront directly issues of racial identity.

Untitled landscape painting of sunset with quarter moon (1883)Edward Mitchell Bannister, Untitled (Sunset with Quarter Moon and Farmhouse, 1883). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Unlike many prominent painters of his day, Bannister never studied abroad, nor even formally, but was instead an entirely homegrown talent. He was also forced to face homegrown challenges and prejudice. Bannister's Under the Oaks was awarded a medal in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, but when Bannister, who had failed to clarify his race when submitting his painting, arrived to claim his prize the swooning judges threatened to give it to another artist. Only upon the intercession of Bannister's fellow artists was the medal restored to its rightful recipient. The incident, and the painting, brought Bannister to the public's attention. That work, like the painting represented here, Sunset with Quarter Moon and Farmhouse (1883), unashamedly displays the awe and mystery in nature that have made this Bannister's work endure for more than a century.

Landscape painting: Approaching Storm (1886)Edward Mitchell Bannister, Approaching Storm (1886). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Bannister believed that landscape painting was more than simple mechanical representation but was in fact an act of near religious ardor. He once delivered a lecture in which he described the role of the artist as the "the interpreter of the infinite, subtle qualities of the spiritual idea centering in all created things, expounding for us the laws of beauty, and so far as finite mind and executive ability can, revealing to us glimpses of the absolute idea of perfect harmony." There certainly is harmony in Approaching Storm (1886) but there is power, too—power magnified by the tiny human figure bearing an axe. Though the figure is the focus of the work, he is dwarfed by the wildly soughing trees and the surrounding landscape; nevertheless, he struggles against the sheer force of the oncoming gale toward some unknown destination.y

Landscape painting of waterfall in Yellowstone park (1890)Grafton Tyler Brown, View of the Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1890). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The first African American painter to make the American west his subject, Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) was born in Pennsylvania and moved westward in the 1850s, in part to find an alternative to the racism and poverty in the east. By trade a mapmaker and painter, Brown eventually landed in San Francisco where he at first worked for, and later owned and operated, a successful lithography concern. Much of his work depicts in bold shapes and grand vistas the open and untrammeled lands of the western United States. Some commentators have suggested that Brown's work, such as the famous painting represented above, View of the Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1890), are meant to depict a world without the entanglements of racism and prejudice, a world without borders or artificial boundaries.

Landscape painting of two sites in CaliforniaGrafton Tyler Brown, Residence of A. Gordon, Redwood City / Gordon's Chute, San Mateo Co. California / Ranch of A. Gordon, San Gregorio, California (No Date). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Though much of Brown's work depicted open spaces, and therefore the freedom of movement and self-determination that was denied African Americans of the time, it was undeniable that such open places in the west were fast disappearing or falling under the hand of development and progress. Brown's work often reminds us of the limiting of prospects and the closing of the frontier, as in Residence of A. Gordon, Redwood City / Gordon's Chute, San Mateo Co. California. An uneasy sea crashes ashore beneath gray cliffs and ranch buildings, while in the second panel a hem of low foothills and wilderness stand in stark contrast to the taming of the land seen nearby. A counterpoint to the open freedom and untouched majesty of much of Brown's work, Residence of A. Gordon reminds us the impermanence of all things, even pristine nature, and that freedom, even attained can just as easily be lost in the rush toward "improvement" and "progress."

Sculpture: Hagar (1875)Edmonia Lewis, Hagar (1875). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The birthplace and date of Edmonia Lewis (c. 1845-c. 1911) remains something of a mystery. Authorities differ, but she was likely born in Albany, New York, sometime around 1845. Her father was a free black and her mother a member of the Ojibwa tribe, who graced her daughter with the name "Wildfire." Lewis went on to become the first nationally recognized African American sculptor. Though her parents died when she was very young, a wealthy brother saw to her education. Her studies led her to Boston, where she learned from Edward Brackett and Anne Whitney, later to Rome when the opportunity afforded itself. Her work is marked by the smooth, cool lines and assuredness of neoclassicism and the power of its feminist themes, as seen represented here in Hagar (1875), the image of the servant set adrift in the wilderness.

Sculpture: Death of Cleopatra (1876)Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra (1876). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

As much a mystery as the woman herself, Edmonia Lewis' Death of Cleopatra (1876), represents the highlight of this tremendous sculptor's career. Produced in the neoclassical style, hewn from two tons of pale marble, the work was greeted with both enthusiasm and controversy when it was unveiled at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Enthusiasm because here was a work of unmistakable ambition and mastery. Controversy because to some eyes of the day the image of Cleopatra was vulgar and exploitative. Here was depicted the Egyptian queen in the moments after the asps' strike, lost in the agony and disappointment of death. Gone were the usual sentimental and romantic representations of mystical transport. Later lost, the sculpture suffered various indignities (it was used as a decoration in a bar and as the headstone for a dead racehorse) before being rediscovered in 1985 and placed in the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

Painting: Resurrection of Lazarus (1896)Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896). Courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

One of the first African American painters to earn an international reputation (along with Robert Scott Duncanson), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began to paint while recuperating from a health-ruining stint working in a flourmill. In 1879 Tanner was admitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, only the second African American to be accepted there. In 1891 Tanner traveled to Europe, intending to study in Rome, but when he landed in Paris, he became enamored of the city and stayed. Much of Tanner's most famous work, his religious studies, was completed in France. The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), with its highly realistic and unsentimental representation of the Gospel story is typical of much of Tanner's religious art, in which themes of rebirth and emancipation are common. The image, represented here, remains one of Tanner's most beloved and recognizable works.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1897)Henry Ossawa Tanner, Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1897). Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Tanner was an African American artist living and creating art in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which meant that he frequently encountered the racial hostility and unthinking prejudice of much of American society. Indeed his mother had been a fugitive slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad, and the name Ossawa was taken from a town in Kansas that had been the launching pad of the abolitionist John Brown's crusade against the institution of human chattel slavery. Much of the reason Tanner remained in Paris after 1891, though he periodically returned to the United States on visits, was that conditions in France allowed him to work and live relatively free of the pervasive and suffocating racism of his own native country. And in fact, much of Tanner's work was an attempt to counteract the degrading images of African Americans common especially in the popular imagery of the day. As in Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1897), above, Tanner represented African Americans as ordinary people with quiet dignity, allowing his bold use of deep hues and space to add drama to the simple arrangement.

Painting: Salome (c. 1900)Henry Ossawa Tanner, Salome (c. 1900). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The longer Tanner lived in Paris, France, the more his work strayed away from the subjects most important to his own native countrymen. Despite the persistent encouragement of African American luminaries, Booker T. Washington among them, that this most famous of black painters ought to use his talent to bring attention to the plight of other black people, Tanner began more and more to abjure such subjects in favor of religious art. Deeply spiritual himself and reluctant to become explicitly political, Tanner often said that he preferred to allow his work to make his point about racial equality. In 1899 he did what would have been all-but-unthinkable in America at the time: he married a white woman, the opera singer Jessie Macauley Olssen, of San Francisco, California, who often served as Tanner's model and who may have been the model for Salome (c. 1900), presented above. With its strikingly impressionistic use of somber blues, grays, and blacks and its unsettlingly non-idealized depiction of a familiar theme, the painting is representative of the work that made Tanner the most famous and well-regarded artist of his time.

Sculpture: The Awakening of Ethiopia (c. 1910)Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, The Awakening of Ethiopia (c. 1910). Courtesy of Schomburg Center / Art Resource, NY

An important and influential forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance in arts and letter, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) has long been regarded as one of the most important African American studio sculptors. Representative of many of her well-known works, The Awakening of Ethiopia (c. 1910) unabashedly acquires the smooth lines and bold design elements of antiquity and was considered a significant step forward in the development of African American art that sought to emphasize themes of black identity and history. Sadly much of Fuller's early work was destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia in 1910. Her proud and defiant embrace of strong images of African peoples would much later make her a figure of some importance in the civil rights movement.