This tranquil landscape is unidentified but may be in Rhode Island where Edward Bannister had settled in 1870 with his wife, a Narragansett Indian from that state. Bannister himself was born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, of a white Canadian mother and a black father from Barbados. Raised as a free black, he was orphaned around 1844–45 and spent several years at sea before moving to Boston in 1848 where he worked at a variety of jobs. He took classes in art at the Lowell Institute, where he studied anatomy with Dr. William Rimmer. Rimmer was a highly original artist, and one should assume some artistic influence on Bannister, though it is undocumented.
He briefly experimented with photography and painted some portraits, but Bannister’s interest settled on landscape painting. French Barbizon landscapes became his model, and it is probable that the source of this attraction was William Morris Hunt. As a student
in France Hunt became a disciple of Jean François Millet and a collector of Barbizon painters. He returned to America and lived in Newport until settling in Boston in 1862 (where, significantly, he was influenced by Rimmer). The vogue for Barbizon paintings among Boston collectors and young artists was in considerable part due to Hunt’s influence.
That Bannister was able to turn his full attention to painting was due to his wife’s business success as the owner of a chain of beauty salons. By 1870 when they moved from Boston to Providence his career as a landscape artist was launched. Esteemed by his peers, he was one of the founders of the Providence Art Club in 1872, and he was on the Board of the Rhode Island School of Design (established 1877). In 1876 he submitted a painting, now unlocated, to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. According to a brief biography written by a fellow artist, this painting was awarded a first prize medal, but when he went to confirm the news he was subjected to comments and looks that indicated “I was not an artist to them simply an inquisitive colored man. . . . I said deliberately, . . . I painted the picture.”1
Farm Landing shows the shore of a pond or lake, since the carefully depicted water lilies are not river plants. Beyond the quiet glow of the water and the green of the lily pads and water grasses is the dock. The red-brown boat anchors the picture and points the eye to the path leading up the sloping meadow to a dense woods. At the small, bright green tree one can imagine the path turning to the left toward a house just glimpsed at the edge of the woods. The house seems a secret place in the landscape and we might not even see it were it not for the tiny beacon of its strong red chimney. Other landscapes by Bannister have such half-hidden houses.
The muted field and the dark mass of trees occupy three-quarters of the canvas, so the square of sky at the left is a relief. The bright light blues that are layered here and there with grays give an effect of wind and weather. In the large white cloud Bannister used strong diagonal strokes and a loaded brush. There is much pink there as also in the lower sky above the distant mountain. It is in the sky and occasionally in the water that Bannister exhibits an improvisatory touch that became much more apparent in his last decade. That touch is seen best of all in the single tree that rises through the pink clouds at the left. The tree is alive and necessary and the most successful idea in the painting. Small as it is, it helps the eye measure the picture space, it pacifies the rather ominous dark woods where they meet the sky, it succinctly unifies and invigorates the painting.
Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 203. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
1 “Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901),” The Papers of African American Artists, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; available online at http://www.aaa.si.edu/guides/pastguides/afriamer/bannist.htm.