Several African American artists began developing their talents in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some of these were slaves, instructed by their masters. Others were free men and women. Very few of them felt safe enough to portray their feelings about slavery and inequality through their art. Most of their paintings were of wealthy white people.
In the 20th century, though, several black artists used their art to communicate powerful ideas about humanity and fairness.
Edmonia Lewis was the first prominent African American sculptor. Born in New York or Ohio in 1853, she was the daughter of a free African American man and a Chippewa woman. Both her parents died before she was five and she was sent to live with her mother’s people. Her brother paid for her to attend Oberlin where she studied art until she was accused of poisoning her roommates and kicked out. She later moved to Boston where she studied sculpture and then to Rome. During a time when most sculptors in Rome hired workmen, Edmonia worked alone.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Philadelphia in 1859. Tanner’s father was a minister and his mother was a slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad. Tanner knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. His father apprenticed him to a flour mill, hoping him to discourage Tanner from being an artist, but the mill was very hard on the boy’s health. Later, Tanner went to Paris where he would spend most of the rest of his life. Many of his paintings are of Biblical scenes.
Edward Mitchell Bannister was a late nineteenth century artist who received several awards and was largely self-taught. He was born in Canada and lost both his parents at an early age. He lived with a white couple for several years before working on a ship. Later he became a barber. He studied sculpture and photography in Boston, but it wasn’t until he read an article in the “New York Herald” that said that African Americans could not produce art that he started painting. He was determined to prove the writer of that article wrong. He won a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Expedition in 1876 for his painting, “Under the Oaks.” When he arrived to receive the award, the judges were angry because he was black. They wanted to give the award to someone else, but the white artists there insisted the award go to Bannister.
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