Edward Mitchell Bannister, Boston Street Scene (Boston Common), 1898-99, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Another landscape today, very different in style to yesterday’s, but, in some very subtle way, connected by a common mindset. Edward Mitchell Bannister’s work contains even less reference to social status or racial issues than paintings by Robert S. Duncanson, but, like Duncanson, he creates a world in which liberty and calm seem to dominate, creating a sense of being at ease in a world where nature is essential benevolent.
Having said that, today’s Picture is not typical of his work, as it is a cityscape. Also, unlike most of his more ‘solidly’ painted works, inspired by stretches of barely populated countryside, it is in an avowedly Impressionist style. Like most national schools of Impressionism outside of France, the Americans were late to the party. Whereas the series of eight exhibitions held by the French stretched between 1874 and 1886, it wasn’t until then – 1886, and the end of ‘official’ Impressionism – that William Merritt Chase’s views of New York parks kick-started the American movement. Another of the great American Impressionists, Childe Hassam, had made his name in Boston between 1882-86 painting in a Realist style, before heading to France. It was there that he took on board the lessons of Impressionism, and took them home with him in 1889. By the time that Bannister was painting in 1899 American Impressionism was a fait accompli, but nevertheless, for him this was a new development in a long and successful career. He had been living in Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 30 years, and was visiting Boston when he painted this work. However, what might have been a new direction for his art stopped short: Bannister died two years later, and this was one of his last works.
As it happens, he was not American by birth. He was born in St Andrews, New Brunswick – in Canada – in 1828: he was just seven years younger than Robert Duncanson. His father was a native of Barbados, his mother’s heritage remains unknown. Orphaned at the age of 16, he was fostered by a white family, and destined for a life at sea, like most of the male population of St Andrews. However, he settled in Boston in 1848, and worked as a barber, supplementing his income by hand-colouring photographs – which was also Sorolla’s route into painting, as it happens. Although he had started painting and attending classes in the 1850s and 60s he became determined to become a successful artist through anger, having read an article in the New York Herald which stated, with the assurance typical of the ill-informed, that ‘the negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it’. Less than ten years later he was awarded the bronze medal for painting (the first prize) at the Philadelphia Centennial – the very same exhibition at which Edmonia Lewis exhibited The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82). I would show you the painting itself, but sadly Under the Oaks has not been seen since the beginning of the last century. Fantastic, you think, he won the bronze medal. But when the judges found out he was black they decided they had come to the wrong decision. Fortunately, Bannister’s white ‘competitors’ wouldn’t accept this, and the judges were forced to uphold their original choice. A substantial and successful career followed – in 1880 he was one of the seven founders of the Providence Art Club, which is still active today, for example. He was a prolific painter, and, despite his name being forgotten after his death, as those of so many artists of colour were, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, home to both The Death of Cleopatra (POTD 82) and Landscape with Rainbow (POTD 83) owns 122 of his works.
The majority of Bannister’s output – including the 1881 painting Driving Home the Cows – is associated with Tonalism, a predominantly American movement inspired by one of the predecessors of Impressionism – the Barbizon School: think Corot, Millet and Daubigny. His direct source was probably one of the Boston-based Tonalists, William Morris Hunt, as, unlike other successful African-American artists in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, he never travelled to Europe.
I wanted to include this painting, though, because it is unlike anything else of his I have seen. The looser brushwork and lighter, pastel colours had gradually developed through the later 1880s and 1890s, but not quite to this extent. It is, as all good Impressionist paintings are (and there are one or two bad ones!), beautifully composed. The skill of such art is not just painting what you see when you see it, but choosing the right thing to look at in the first place, and the right way of looking at it. The authenticity of plein air painting in front of the motif (i.e. painting outside while looking at the subject – let’s cut to the chase!) has often been questioned. Were they really outside, for one thing? Many of the works were, of course, ‘improved’ back in the studio (but there’s nothing wrong with that). And were they really painting exactly what they saw? Well, no, of course not. They were artists! The main aim was to capture the ‘feel’ of being there. Well, one of the main aims, anyway. And in this case, the painting is dated ‘1898-99’, so even if he had been outside, he wouldn’t have been there all that time. Maybe he, just like Degas – and for that matter, Henry Ossawa Tanner – had recourse to photographs (The Banjo Lesson, POTD 81, was based on pictures that Tanner had taken).
All that aside, we are probably heading along Tremont Street in Boston, with the Common to our right, and buildings – none of which survive, as far as I can tell – on our left. The street cuts in on a diagonal from the bottom left, with the line of the kerb starting in the corner, a favourite compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye into the painting. Here, it takes us to a stroller (yes, this is America) pushed by one of two ladies.
Bannister is using colour to unite the two, rather than painting what he saw, I suspect. The woman on the left, further back, has a brown top, the same colour as the skirt of the woman on the right. The latter’s top is pink – and uses the same colour as the dashes which describe the baby in the pushchair. There is a wonderful freedom in the handling of paint, wet-on-wet, almost scratchy in places, and a real ability to conjure up a sense of time and place. There is so little traffic – unlike late 19th Century Paris – with one horse and carriage coming towards us on the far left, and another heading away in the middle distance on the right – with a few more in the background.
The clear sky is built up from flecks of different blues, laid on top of brush strokes going in all directions. Surrounding the leaves, and what looks to me like blossom, it reminds me of some of van Gogh’s cherry trees. However, as the Dutch artist wasn’t exhibited in America until 1913, and, as I have said, Bannister did not travel to Europe, this is probably coincidental. There is such a delicate touch – the tall pink building is almost sketched in with the thinnest of horizontal and vertical lines building up its form – and across the painting, every window, windowsill and roof, however free, is still surprisingly secure. It is beautifully painted, I think, and I will certainly seek out more. Meanwhile, before tomorrow, we will have to leave the apparent calm of Boston at the end of the 19th Century, and head off to a more angst-laden 20th Century Europe. Although we may find that I’ve had to return immediately to America.