Black History Month gives reasons, if one were to be needed, to celebrate the art of African-Americans and provides an overview at New York’s galleries and auction houses. Two of those exhibits are being held at Swann and Babcock Galleries. The one artist that has a prominent position in both exhibits is Edward Mitchell Bannister.
Known today as a Rhode Island painter, no element of his barbizon-looking landscapes can be used to identify his race. I’m not certain if his race was known when his painting “Under the Oaks” won a bronze medal at the 1876 Philadelphia exposition, but racial prejudice likely played a role in his relative obscurity between his death in 1901 and rediscovery in the 1970s. In 1978, Rhode Island College dedicated its Art Gallery in Bannister’s name with the exhibition : “Four From Providence ~ Alston, Bannister, Jennings & Prophet.”
Bannister is best known for his landscapes and both paintings on view now in New York are good examples, although both considerably larger than the works that usually come to market. Of the two, the work on display at Babcock is probably the better, although taste is a factor, and certainly the one in better condition. The painting up for auction at Swann is in need of a comprehensive restoration.
Of nineteenth-century African-American artists, Bannister is probably the most well-known besides Henry Ossawa Tanner. One of the most striking paintings on display at Babcock, a gallery that has operated since the artist’s early life, is an exotic scene by Tanner. While race may have played a role in Bannister’s eventual obscurity, it also played a role in Tanner’s decision to leave the U.S. and paint elsewhere. A favorite student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he befriended other artists including Robert Henri. Despite his acceptance at the Academy, Tanner felt the prevalence of racism in Philadelphia and left for France in the winter of 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he would spend the rest of his life there. In the last decade of his life, Tanner traveled to the Middle East, where he likely painted the work now on display at Babcock.
It should be noted, whether or not Tanner himself may consider it an honor, but his painting Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City was the first painting by an African-American artist to enter the permanent collection of the White House and hangs in the Green Room. It was acquired during the Clinton administration from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist, by the White House Endowment Fund.
There are many other notable works by African-American artists on display at Swann and Babcock. Portrait of an Adolescent by Sheldon Orrin Parsons at Babcock looks at first glance as though it may be a work by Robert Henri. Parsons, however worked far from the ash can scenes of New York in New Mexico. He was the first director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. His did take some New York roots with him to be planted in the desert sand. Born in Rochester, Parsons studied at the National Academy of Design with William Merritt Chase. The portrait offered was painted in the 1890s, as much as a decade before he reached New Mexico.
The two exhibitions have decisively different angles with respect to African-American art. In Swann, Nigel Freeman, director of the department of African-American Fine Art, commented that the sale showcases not only just works of art by African-American artists, but also Barbizon and WPA works as there are many styles and schools within the generations of African-American artists. At Babcock, the title is Seeing and Seen, thus there are a substantial number of works that were not done by African-American artists. Those works, not surprisingly, depict subjects related to emancipation and the Civil War, including prints after paintings of Eastman Johnson and George Bingham or William Aiken Walker’s genre scenes. One tintype photo of a black union soldier in uniform is displayed prominently in the gallery, indicating the significant role of the race of the subject in tintype collecting. A typical union solder or a confederate solder’s tintype photo (sixth plate) is usually sold in auction houses in the range of one hundred dollars, yet photos of black soldiers command such a premium that one is expected to pay a few thousands.
Interestingly, in a different room of the Babcock gallery, there are also works by Chuck Close and Andy Warhol, which, although with black subjects, are not part of the current exhibition “Seeing and Seen 1766 – 1916“. In these intriguing works, I didn’t notice the race until consciously looking for it since we take for granted that modern artists can take whatever subject suits their need and inspiration — thus, seeing and not seen or the disappearance of race identity in most American modern art, may be a good way to conclude our gallery trip in Black History Month.