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Edward Mitchell Bannister: Pathbreaking Nineteenth-Century Artist, Activist, and Cultural Leader

Edward Mitchell Bannister 

By Charmaine A. Nelson


Nineteenth-century New Brunswick was not synonymous with the fine arts and the few opportunities that existed were unavailable to black people. To be fair, at the time, the entire region of what was shortly to become Canada was bereft of an official infrastructure of fine arts education; a fact that had prompted ambitious would-be artists like François Malépart de Beaucourt to head to Europe a century before. Rather than art school instruction, aspiring proto-Canadian artists sought out a “master” under whom they could apprentice. But as was the case with other young western nations like the USA, opportunities to study arts like painting and sculpture and to acquire patronage largely emerged around major urban centres like Montreal, Toronto, New York, and Philadelphia. However, the artist Edward Mitchell Bannister – long claimed as a canonical African American and American painter – was born in the town of Saint Andrews, New Brunswick at the southern tip of a peninsula, extending into Passamaquoddy Bay, a place where he apparently remained until his late teens. (fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Gustine Hurd (1833-1910), Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901), African American Painter (c. 1880), albumen silver print, 14.5 x 10.2 cm (image), 45.7 x 35.6 cm (mat), 46.5 x 36.4 x 3.2 cm (frame), gift of Sandra and Jacob Terne, NPG 76.66, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY.


While Bannister’s birth year is often given as 1828, Pamela M. Fletcher has argued that he may have been born earlier.[1] Edward was the son of Hannah Alexander, described as a native of New Brunswick who was most likely white, and Edward Bannister Senior of Barbados. Although black populations had been in the Maritimes from the seventeenth century, in the late eighteenth century, New Brunswick absorbed a significant influx of enslaved and free black people largely comprised of African Americans and African-born people who were initially enslaved south of the border prior to the Revolutionary War.[2] Saint Andrews, originally known by the indigenous name Qunnnoskwamk’ook, was eventually settled in the 1780s by white Loyalists. While the free blacks who were sent to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had garnered their liberty through their valiant contributions to the British war effort, the enslaved people who were simultaneously compelled to move north were forced to accompany their fleeing white Loyalists enslavers. Like other parts of New Brunswick, when Bannister was born, Saint Andrew would have been a racially-segregated town politically and socially dominated by white Loyalists, many former plantation owners and their descendants who had been given huge land grants to incentivize them to move north “with their slaves and servants”.[3] When Bannister was born, as in other provinces, slavery was still legal in New Brunswick; a fact that would not change until an act was passed in the British parliament in 1834. Thus, although it appears that Bannister was born free (which would make sense if his mother was white), he was a man of African descent in a region where slavery was still legal.

While Bannister was apparently drawing by the age of ten, how his early talent and desire to become and artist developed within this sleepy, proto-Canadian, seaboard town has yet to be fully explored.[4] After the death of his father in 1832, his mother whom he recalled as very supportive of his artistic talents, raised Bannister. It was only some years after her death in 1844 that Bannister left New Brunswick, working as a sailor and spending several years at sea.[5]Although little is know about his early years in New Brunswick and how they may have shaped his desire to become an artist, his southward move to New York and eventually Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1840s and early 1850s was clearly designed to give him more permanent access to greater social and cultural opportunities which he had experienced through his maritime travels.[6] Slavery was dying out in Massachusetts by the 1780s, in large part due to its vigorous abolitionist activism through which free and enslaved black people sought protection and encouragement. Although a dominantly white city with centuries-long ties to slavery, by the nineteenth century, Boston had developed a reputation as an abolitionist hub through the printing of newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, the activism of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and most importantly, the individual and collective efforts of enslaved and free black people like Frederick Douglass.[7] But slavery was still widely legal in the USA and would remain so until 1865, the end of the American Civil War. Considered a mulatto within the colonial terminology of the times, Bannister faced considerable racial obstacles on both sides of the border.

Bannister’s move to Boston transformed his life and he became active in a rich cultural circle that included participation in musical and theatrical clubs.[8] After securing work as a barber in her Boston salon by 1853, he courted and eventually married the black and indigenous entrepreneur Madam Christiana Carteaux (1822-1902). Carteaux was a ground-breaking entrepreneur who owned a chain of hair salons and marketed her own beauty products in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where she had been born in North Kingstown.[9] Through her brother Charles’ marriage to Cecelia Remond, Carteaux was also connected to the influential free black abolitionist family, the Remonds, who operated several businesses including hair salons and wig manufacturing.[10] Carteaux no doubt encouraged Bannister’s participation in official and clandestine abolitionist activism and Civil War aid for the enslaved and wounded black soldiers, and together they assisted in Boston-based operations of the Underground Railroad.[11]Indeed, when Carteaux helped to organize a fair and auction on behalf of black Union soldiers of Massachusetts through the Colored Ladies Sanitary Commission of Boston, Bannister’s portrait of the martyred Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (valued at two hundred dollars) was a feature item in the auction and eventually hung in the State House in Boston.[12] The couple was at the forefront of black social uplift, moving in circles with the likes of famed self-liberated, black activists like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, the latter of whom observed that Bannister was one who was immersing himself in poetry, the classics, and fine arts, and constantly honing his artistic skills.[13]

Although he experienced some success and recognition by 1854 when an article in The Liberator describing one of his landscape paintings labelled him a “Colored Genius,” his cultural path was far from smooth.[14] As with Boston-based contemporaries like the black and indigenous neoclassical sculptor Edmonia Lewis,[15] Bannister encountered considerable obstacles and setbacks in his artistic education due to racial discrimination and struggles to secure professional instruction.[16] Indeed, The Liberator article described him as “self-taught”.[17] Although it is not known if the two forged a friendship, both Bannister and Lewis had space in the Studio Building on Tremont Street[18] and she too had experienced devastating racism during her short sojourn in Ohio where she had studied at Oberlin College.[19] Although Lewis soon set sail in late 1865 for Europe to establish her Roman studio, it is tantalizing to consider the conversations and encouragements that the two aspiring artists may have shared.

It is hard to overestimate the impact that Carteaux had on Bannister. In her he found a mature, intelligent, ambitious, educated, and politically and socially well-connected businesswoman who facilitated his access to Boston’s African American elite and white anti-slavery communities and became, in Bannister’s own word, his indispensable patron, advocate, critic, confidant, and staunchest supporter.[20] As Naurice Frank Woods has aptly noted, the racist jealousy with which whites guarded their access to “high” art meant, that for black artists, “natural talent…was often not enough to overcome the crippling effects of racism.”[21] Bannister would express his admiration for his wife through a three-quarter oil portrait representing the seated Carteaux as beautiful, poised, elegant, and introspective. (fig. 2)

Fig. 2: Edward M. Bannister, Portrait of Christiana Carteaux Bannister (n.d.), oil on canvas, 90.17  × 71.12 cm, Newport Art Museum, Rhode Island.


After their wedding on 10 June 1857, with Carteaux’s blessing and financial support, Bannister ceased his job at her hair salon and pursued his dream of becoming an artist full-time, and by 1859, he listed his profession as painter in the Boston city directory.[22] Interestingly, he later listed himself as a photographist in 1863 around the same time that he enrolled in night classes at the Lowell Institute, making him one of, if not the first, black person to obtain formal artistic training in the USA.[23] Crucially, is was at Lowell that Bannister, tutored by Dr. William Rimmer, received instruction on human anatomy that was essential for the most revered genres of “high” art like portraiture, history painting, genre studies, and the nude.[24] His fellow student and friend, the white portraitist John Nelson Arnold, would later recall Bannister’s “genial, kindly, courteous nature”.[25]

To understand the full weight of the artistic and cultural achievements of Edward Mitchell Bannister, one must come to grips with the pervasive racism that comprised a kind of common sense in nations like Canada and the USA. The colonial underpinning of slavery entailed the physical, social, intellectual, and cultural stigmatization and denigration of black Africans as supposedly inferior to Europeans and Euro-Americans. The notion that race was biological and hierarchical with whites the unquestioned ideal, was anchored by the scientific and cultural pathologizing of black people as animalistic, uncivilized, pagan, and incapable of refined thought or aesthetic accomplishment. Such racist stereotypes were used to support the strategic segregation of education in nations like Canada and the USA and served to dissuade or outright block black people from accessing opportunities to study the sciences and the arts and humanities. Bannister understood that his limited art education, a piecemeal blend of art school classes and private lessons, did not rise to the level of most of his white peers, a fact he purportedly lamented stating, “All I would do I cannot…simply for the want of proper training.”[26] The prolific racial segregation of the fine arts in the nineteenth century and earlier resulted in the proliferation of representations of black people as the models in artwork created by white artists, but very few examples of formally trained black artists who were able to put brush to canvas or chisel to stone.

Although painters have traditionally specialized in one genre of art, Bannister eventually settled in Providence, Rhode Island in 1870 opening a studio at 14 Westminster Street where he created religious, still life, and portrait paintings, although he came to be most known for his accomplished landscapes in the French Barbizon style which emphasized the direct experience of nature through the poetic and expressive representation of light and atmosphere.[27] Black subjects are largely missing from his oeuvre, perhaps because of the lack of black patronage, and perhaps because he understood that aligning himself with black subjects in an overt way may have served only to conflate him with his art and diminish his prospects with the white patrons upon whom he relied.

Fig. 3: Edward M. Bannister, Newspaper Boy (1869), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 63.8 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jack Hafif and Frederick Weingeroff.


But he also created a portrait of the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and a noteworthy genre paintings like Newspaper Boy (1869) [fig. 3], both of which gained the attention of the local newspaper Providence Press.[28] It is in this period that Bannister gained regional and national recognition for his art, winning an Award of Premium at the Rhode Island Industrial Exhibition in 1872 for Summer Afternoon and a first-place bronze medal and certificate of award for Under the Oaks (now lost) at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition in 1876.[29] (Edmonia Lewis also exhibited her daring Death of Cleopatra (1875) at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition). In the latter case, seeking not to influence the judges, Bannister had not disclosed his race upon entry.[30] As he recalled, when he arrived in Philadelphia to collect his award, he was initially greeted with disdain and aggressively dismissed as a “colored” interloper before he was able to inform the officials that it was he who had painted the winning entry.[31] Disgracefully, the white judges attempted to withdraw their decision after Bannister’s race was revealed and only relented after the vehement protests of his fellow white artists.[32] Bannister’s Philadelphia triumph cemented his reputation as a leading artist and his regional influence amongst his Rhode Island peers. On 12 February 1880, Bannister was one of the sixteen men and women who gathered to sign a charter to form the Providence Art Club which became the site of important annual exhibitions[33] and he served on the original board of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1878.[34]

Fig. 4: Edward M. Bannister, Approaching Storm (1886), oil on canvas, 101.9 × 152.4 cm,
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of G. William Miller.


Bannister’s output slowed by the 1890s due to ill health.[35] Perhaps due to years of exposure to lead paint, late in life, Bannister suffered from dementia.[36] But despite his many pathbreaking successes, Bannister never travelled abroad and unlike most of his white contemporaries, he never experienced European art through the Grand Tour.[37]On 9 January 1901, Bannister – a devout Christian – succumbed to his illness, dying of heart failure at the age of seventy-three while offering a prayer at his church.[38] Upon his death, Bannister received glowing praise through obituaries written in the white and black presses and within mere months, a major retrospective was curated in his honour at the Providence Art Club by his friends[39] who remembered him as “par excellence a landscape painter, and the best one our State has produced”.[40] (fig. 4) The same friends – all white men – erected a monument hewn from a ten-foot block of Rhode Island granite at his grave site the same year.[41] (fig. 5) Tragically, Carteaux, unable to come to terms with her beloved husband’s death, entered a rest facility in September 1902 and was shortly thereafter moved to a state asylum where she died on 29 December 1902.[42] She was interred beside her husband. When she passed Carteaux was financially impoverished.[43] Her dire financial situation upon her death raises questions about Bannister’s financial status at the time of his own death, the year before.


Fig. 5: Bannister grave marker dedication, November 1901, Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Boston Public Library.


Bannister clearly understood the way that white racism had constrained and limited his artistic aspirations and career stating, “I have been sustained by an in-born love for art and accomplished all I have undertaken through the severest struggles which, while severe enough for white men, have been enhanced tenfold in my case.”[44] In the end, Bannister transcended his humble New Brunswick roots to establish himself not merely as a painter of national prominence in the USA, but an instructor, esteemed peer, and a founder of early American art institutions. It is long past time for him to be properly recognized in his country of birth.


Bannister’s story is featured in the upcoming CBC series Black Life: Untold Stories, coming to CBC Gem October 18, 2023 and CBC television October 25, 2023.



[1] Pamela M. Fletcher, “Bannister, Edward Mitchell, (c. 1826 – 9 Jan. 1901),” African American Lives, eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 46.

[2] Harvey Amani Whitfield, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1816-1860 (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press, 2006), 18. While some, like the Virginia governor Lord Dunmore and the British Commander in Chief General William Howe, offered only freedom to enslaved people, others like Sir Henry Clinton offered land and provisions in one of His Majesty’s colonies in addition to freedom.

[3] Whitfield, Blacks on the Border, p. 19.

[4] Fletcher, “Bannister, Edward Mitchell,” 46.

[5] “Bannister, Edward Mitchell,” Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, 11 April 2023 (date of last access 7 July 2023)

[6] “Bannister, Edward Mitchell,” Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Oxford Art Online, 31 October 2011 (date of last access 7 July 2023).

[7] Naurice Frank Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis(Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2021), 77.

[8] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 81. Bannister purportedly had a lovely tenor voice and participated in church choirs and the Attucks Glee Club as well as the Histrionic Club that produced plays.

[9] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 81.

[10] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 82. Both Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond were active in the anti-slavery cause and Sarah relocated to Italy where she became a medical doctor. See: Sirpa Salenius, An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

[11] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 82. Bannister also contributed to the Convention of the Colored Citizens of New England and served as recording secretary of the Association for the Relief of Destitute Contrabands, an organization focused on assisting enslaved black people during the Civil War. (83) See also:  “New England Colored Citizens’ Convention,” The Liberator, August 19, 1859, no. 33, 132; “Association for the Relief of Destitute Contrabands,” The Liberator, no. 41, October 10, 1862, 163.

[12] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 85; Liberator, October 1864. Letter, Lydia Maria Child to Sarah Shaw, November 3, 1864, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Carteaux later worked with other black women to establish the Home for Aged and Colored Women at 45 East Transit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. (110)

[13] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 84, 86. Interestingly, in the late 1800s in Providence, one of Bannister’s students, William Alden Brown, recalled that he was “thoroughly conversant with the Bible, Shakespeare, English literature, classic themes and mythology.” (114); cited from W. Alden Brown, “Edward Mitchell Bannister,” unpublished typescript, W. Alden Brown Papers, Manuscripts Division, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence.

[14] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 80.

[15] Charmaine A. Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

[16] “Colored Genius,” The Liberator, August 11, 1854, no. 32, 127; Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 80.

[17] “Colored Genius,” The Liberator, August 11, 1854, no. 32, 127; Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 80.

[18] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 87.

[19] Nelson, The Color of Stone, 17, 174.

[20] William Wells Brown, Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), 215; cited in Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 81, 82, 86.

[21] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 97.

[22] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 85.

[23] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 86.

[24] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 86-87. Genre is a type of art devoted to images of human activity.

[25] John N. Arnold, “Edward M. Bannister: Reminiscences and Appreciative Tribute by a Fellow Artist,” Providence Daily Journal, May 19, 1901, 17; cited in Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 87.

[26] George William Whitaker, “Edward Mitchell Bannister,” undated typescript, Edward Mitchell Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, 6.

[27] Bannister appears to have encountered the Barbizon style in Boston galleries as well as through his fellow artist, Vermont native William Morris Hunt (1824 – 1879) who shared space in the Studio Building on Tremont Street. Hunt travelled to Barbizon, France in 1852 to live and study with Jean-François Millet and other artists. Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 100, 102.

[28] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 103; “Art and Artists: The Studios of Providence,” Providence Press, October 26, 1869.

[29] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 105, 106. John Duff of Chicago purchased Bannister’s painting for $1500.00 prior to the competition results. (110) Bannister also won bronze medals at the Boston Charitable Mechanics Association in 1878 and 1881, and a silver medal for A New England Hillside in 1884 amongst other awards. (116)

[30] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 107.

[31] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 107-08.

[32] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 109.

[33] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 111.

[34] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 116.

[35] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 119.

[36] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 119.

[37] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 88.

[38] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 119.

[39] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 120. The Bannister retrospective opened on 14 May 1901 and included 101 paintings, two loaned by his widow and the rest by patrons and friends.

[40] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 121; cited from the unsigned introduction to the Edward Mitchell Bannister Memorial Exhibition, Providence Art Club, May 1901.

[41] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 121.

[42] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 122.

[43] Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 122. Carteaux was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2003 and her sculptural portrait graces the Rhode Island State House.

[44] Rev. William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising (Cleveland, Ohio: Geo. M. Rewell and Co., 1887), 1129; cited in Woods, “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901),” 123.