When Edward Bannister stepped to the stage at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition to accept a bronze medal for his painting Under the Oaks, he sent shock waves through the crowd that watched.
They did not expect to see a black man.
The judges were flabbergasted. They decided to take away his prize and give it to someone else. The other artists threatened to withdraw their work when they heard about it, so the judges relented and gave Edward Bannister his bronze medal.
Bannister sold the four-foot-by-six-foot painting of sheep and oak trees for $1,500 to a Mr. Duffe of Boston. It has since been lost.
But from then on, Edward Bannister was in demand as an artist. Working out of Providence, R.I., he prospered for the first time in his life. He could even afford a sailboat, from which he painted seascapes. Bannister won the respect of the Rhode Island art community and beyond.
He owed it all to his wife.
Edward Bannister, Artist
Edward Bannister was born in 1828 in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and moved to Boston as a young man. He got a job as a hairdresser, working in one of several salons owned by a woman named Christiana Carteaux. An independent businesswoman of mixed Native American and African American heritage, she called herself a “hair doctress.” Christina owned hair salons in Boston and Worcester.
Edward Bannister married Christiana Carteaux in 1857. They must have made an attractive couple. Her portrait shows a beautiful, poised woman. And a friend described Edward as spare and slim, “quick in his walk and easy in his manner.”
But because of his race, he had trouble finding an apprenticeship or an academic program that would accept him. Largely self taught, he sold his first commissioned work, The Ship Outward Bound, to a black doctor, John V. deGrasse.
He and Christiana lived and worked with Lewis Hayden, an African-American leader of the abolitionist movement. Edward studied photography and then worked as a photographer to make a living. They rose to prominence within Boston’s African-American community.
In 1864, Christiana held a fair to raise money for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers. Edward painted a portrait of the regiment’s leader, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, which he then donated to raise money for the cause. (Sadly, the portrait has been lost.)
The Philadelphia Centennial
The Bannisters then moved to Providence after the Civil War. Christiana opened another salon and in 1870 told him to quit his job and focus on his art.
“I would have made out very poorly had it not been for her,” Bannister said. “My greatest successes have come through her, either through her criticisms of my pictures, or the advice she would give me in the matter of placing them in public.”
He worked in a studio in downtown Providence, painting landscapes and portraits. His work began to sell, and by 1872 he exhibited at the Boston Art Club.
Then in 1876, Bannister entered Under the Oaks in the Philadelphia Centennial competition. He described what happened after he read in the newspaper that No. 54 had won. He hurried to the committee rooms to make sure it was true. Inside the crowded room, he jostled people, and they clearly resented his presence. Some said within his hearing, “What is that colored person in here for?” He tried to get the attention of the official in charge.
Without making eye contact, the official said in exasperation, “Well what do you want here any way? Speak lively.”
Bannister told him he wanted to inquire about No. 54. “What’s that to you?” the official said. Bannister responded deliberately, “I am interested in the report that Under the Oaks has received a prize; I painted the picture.” The official then apologized without hesitation and soon every one in the room bowed and scraped to him.
Success for Edward Bannister
After his success at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, Edward and Christiana Bannister lived a good life. In 1884, they moved from the boarding house they lived in to a house at 93 Benevolent Street.
Christiana founded the Home for Aged and Colored Woman, now Bannister Nursing Care Center in Providence.
He helped start the Providence Art Club across from the First Baptist Church, and became an original board member of the Rhode Island School of Design.
They spent summers at a cottage on Narragansett Bay and sailed in their sloop Fanchon . They also acted in community theater.
Bannister, a devout Christian, viewed art as a deeply spiritual activity. He died of a heart attack on Jan. 9, 1901 at a prayer meeting at the Elmwood Avenue Free Baptist Church. His last words were, “Jesus, help me.” Christiana then died the next year and was buried next to her husband.
Edward Bannister’s friends in the art community created a headstone for him, a large rock with a palette. It said, “Friends of this pure and lofty sold, freed from the form which lies beneath the sod, have placed this stone to mark the grave of him, who while he portrayed nature, walked with God.”
Edward Bannister faded into obscurity after his death. His work, however, was rediscovered during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. His work appeared in a number of exhibitions in prestigious galleries and the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame inducted him in 1976. Two years later, Rhode Island College named its art gallery after him.
Brown University renovated the Bannister House on Benevolent Street and then sold it to a professor. If he sells it, he has to sell it back to Brown.
A bust of Christiana was dedicated at the Rhode Island Statehouse in 2002. And in 2017, the Providence City Council renamed Magee Street after the Bannisters.
This story was updated in 2023.