Last summer, a statue of a bronze man sitting alone on a bench appeared in PVD’s Market Square. Although he can’t introduce himself, his bench bears his name: Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901). If you aren’t familiar with Bannister, you likely know the Providence Art Club, which he helped found. During his life, Bannister was considered one of R’s greatest painters. He achieved fame on the national level after winning first prize at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair for his painting Under the Oaks. He was almost denied the prize because he was Black. Bannister used his notoriety to help build the institutions that would sustain long-term creativity in Providence. Yet, Providentians don’t remember Bannister. Many of Bannister’s paintings have been lost, including his prize winning Under the Oaks. Even the most lauded of Black individuals can have their stories erased from history.
To help remind Providence of their forgotten founder, the Art Club launched the Bannister Community Art Project in 2023. Along with installing a monument to Bannister, the club hopes to introduce new curriculum about Rhode Island history for state middle schools, create more public art installations, and even launch an arts-related-scholarship for marginalized students. Yet, one aspect of the project leaves me weary – the choice of sculptor, Gage Prentiss. Prentiss is white and has frequently worked with the Art Club in the past.
Amid a sea of praise for the Bannister Project, artist and URI professor Bob Dilworth offered some critiques of the project in an editorial for The Boston Globe. A Black artist himself, Dilworth argued that Bannister’s story is “similar to those of every young Black artist and artist of color today.” Unfortunately, within the art industry these voices are “seldom asked to choose and shape their stories […] They see their birthright and their inheritance being questioned.”
Considering the racism Bannister experienced in his own artistic career, it would have been impactful to commission a local Black artist to honor his memory.
Instead the Providence Art Club gave more exposure to a white artist who can never truly understand the lived experiences of being Black in America.
When we talk about Black historical figures we often fall into two traps, either focusing on the subject’s race entirely or not at all, rather than understanding the figure as a complex individual with varied identities and experiences. By reducing a historical figure to their racial identity, we lose the cumulative experiences that made a subject, well, a person. Many biographies of Bannister do this by beginning his story with a simple anecdote: After reading an article that argued Africans had an inferior understanding of art, Bannister decided to become an artist.
Many additional experiences informed Bannister’s decision to paint. As a young boy, Bannister doodled the faces he saw on any surface – walls, fences, and even his schoolbooks. Despite his knack for painting, Bannister tried to be a cobbler, then a seaman, and finally a hairdresser. After marrying Christiana Carteaux, the woman who owned the salon he worked at, Bannister decided to become a painter. This was largely due to the financial support Carteaux gave him.
We forget that historical figures were people, with lives as complex as our own. Finding the details of past individuals’ lives requires research. Especially for Black individuals, whose stories have been historically devalued (think about Bannister’s lost paintings) that research can be challenging. Bannister’s story is incomplete without considering his identity as a Black man in 19th century America; however, he should not be reduced to that sole part of his identity.
In an attempt to be equitable and account for the racism of America’s past, sometimes people overcorrect by eliminating race from a Black person’s story entirely. It’s like when supposed non-racists tell you “they don’t see color.” However, it would be naïve to just ignore Bannister’s Blackness. Bannister was aware of the impact his race could have in the mostly white, artistic communities he was involved with. Scholars believe that’s partially why he painted landscapes. Upon first glance, his art was apolitical and seemingly devoid of indicators of Black identity. When he submitted Under the Oaks to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, he didn’t include a list of accomplishments and other works like most painters did. Under the guise of anonymity, Bannister’s race couldn’t impact their decision. (And once his race was revealed, it almost affected their ruling.)
Allowing Black historical figures to have agency outside of their race, while not ignoring how race impacted their lives is the challenge with non-Black people telling Black stories.
In an interview with Providence Monthly, when asked about depicting Bannister, Prentiss said, “I’m an artist, not a historian or a person of color from his time.” His main goal was “to interpret Bannister as [he] experienced him.” For a project dedicated to telling oft-forgotten Black stories, a white man’s experience with the subject matter is at the forefront of that project.
Prentiss’ hard work and care for his subject can not be denied, even if I wonder whether he was the right person for the job. He spent hours researching benches, historical fashions, and even how people in the nineteenth century postured themselves while sitting. Prentiss sculpted, melted, and resculpted Bannister’s head and hands seven or eight times. Bannister’s form would not make itself known to Prentiss. At times, the sculpture rejected being sculpted. Was Prentiss’ labor one of love or a labor spurred by not being able to relate to his source material?
Of course, there are more tangible problems with selecting Prentiss. At its core, the Bannister Project was about bringing recognition to an underappreciated artist of color. Why not elaborate on that ethos by hiring an underappreciated artist of color? Providence Art Club didn’t hold a contest or encourage submissions when soliciting an artist for Bannister. In a stunning example of cronyism, the Club chose Prentiss, whom they’d commissioned for sculptures and a bust of Bannister in 2021. Prentiss is well-established in the Providence cultural scene and his wife is the executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. This is how exclusion perpetuates itself: selecting the white artist with institutional resources and clout, over taking the extra time to support an artist from an underrepresented community.
Edward Mitchell Bannister was no stranger to being passed over for a more well-known white artist. Across the street from the Massachusetts State House, several Black men protrude from a sheet of bronze, while a white man rides above them on a steed. This is the monument honoring the all-Black 54th Regiment and their colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Bannister was well known in the Boston abolitionist community and had painted Shaw before. However, Boston’s upper class didn’t trust a Black artist to depict such an important historical moment. So, they picked the well-known, white artist Augustus SaintGaudens. Monuments depicting and celebrating Black men were incredibly rare at the time of its debut in 1897. Now, Boston’s 54th monument is less fondly remembered. The heroic white Shaw is placed on a pedestal above a legion of Black soldiers many of whom remain nameless on the monument. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and the reckoning with racist public monuments that ensued, the monument was continuously vandalized throughout the 2010s. It’s unclear if history will remember Providence’s Edward Mitchell Bannister bench as fondly.
Large portions of this article were written with the help of the works Race and Racism in Nineteenth-Century Art: The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis by Naurice Frank Woods Jr. and Landscapes of Labor, Race, Religion, and Rhode Island in the Painting of Edward Mitchell Bannister by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw.