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Black Artists Before the 20th Century: Part One

Black Artists Before the 20th Century: Part One

Enormous difficulties have been faced by African Americans in the pursuit of fine arts. It is incredibly hard to find representation of black subjects and artists in traditional museums, which are typically dominated by white men. If you wish to see a wider selection of work, you must turn to historical documentation, like old artist advertisements in newspapers. Because it is hard to track down surviving works from black artists pre-20th century, it is exciting when pieces are revealed. Here are some notable artists and pieces scholars have collected for the public to explore.

Edward Mitchell Bannister was a painter born in the early 1800’s. His family was from Barbados, but eventually moved to Canada, and then America. Many praised his work, but newspapers would often write racist disparaging remarks against him, making it difficult for him to succeed in the art world. He primarily focused on tonal paintings of landscapes and mythological scenes. He had a penchant for perfecting the human form. Despite his mastery of fine arts, economic troubles forced Bannister to work as a barber and photograph tinter while also pursuing his passion. After winning many awards, he was able to sell his work, but still faced constant discrimination. He finally received the recognition he deserved posthumously, and many colleges have areas named after Bannister.

People Near Boat, Edward Bannister

Scipio Moorhead was an enslaved man in the late 1700’s. He was owned by a Reverend whose wife was an art teacher that sometimes tutored Scipio. He became a very talented portrait engraver and his work is still seen today. Unfortunately, very little else is known about Moorhead as his work–and his life–was not seen as important until long after his death. His style of engraving went on to inspire many future artists, and for that his name will always be remembered.

Phillis Wheatley, Scipio Moorhead

Joshua Johnshon was a painter shrouded in an air of mystery. His name is on the back of countless works of elite egalitarians of Boston in the 1800’s, but very few actually know who he was. After decades of piecing together the facts, historians learned he was the son of a white man and enslaved black woman. It was common at the time for this to happen, but the men rarely claimed their children. Joshua’s father did, however, under the condition Joshua complete an apprenticeship to learn a trade and move out on his own. The man did not free Joshua’s mother. Joshua was a talented self taught painter–because he was not influenced by any academy, his work had a unique carefree air to it that gave it a distinct lightheartedness. Due to his father’s connections, many wealthy people sought him out to complete oil paintings of their families. Johnson married and continued to paint while working other jobs until the end of his life. 

See Also

John Jacob Anderson and Sons, Joshua Johnson

This is part one of an ongoing series examining black artists from before the 19th century.

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