One artist couldn’t go to his own opening because his mother was black. One sold his paintings door-to-door for food. Another was inspired by a newspaper article that said black folks couldn’t paint. A fourth, born into affluence, ended his career in France, where he was seen as an artist, not a black man.
Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872), Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901), Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923) and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) are painters whose names are familiar to art historians and collectors. They will be better known to students and the community after Hearne Fine Art opens the exhibit "Pioneers of the Paint: Masters of the 19th Century" Friday at the gallery at 1001 Wright Ave.
Hearne, who moved her gallery from the River Market district to a downtown neighborhood to be more involved in that community, has assembled dozens of paintings by the four African American artists of the 19th century with the help of a New York collector and dealer. Though she’s previously focused on contemporary African American artists in her gallery, which she’s operated with her husband, Archie Hearne, for 22 years, Hearne decided to mount this exhibit as a kind of beginning: For her gallery, which she wants to be seen as a “serious gallery of quality works,” and an awareness of African American artists who, despite their circumstances, were among the best painters of their time.
Hearne also seeks to encourage the public acquisition of the art. “You shouldn’t be able to walk in this gallery and see this art. It’s crazy,” she said. The exhibit at Hearne is unique, museum quality works in a commercial gallery, as rare as stumbling on Asher Durand or Thomas Eakins at your local gallery.
Art in America in the 19th century was concerned with the nation’s deep woods and open country, and the landscapes here are along those lines: deft scenes of looming trees and creeks, pastorals of waving grass, blue skies, tumbling clouds. What figures there are — they are few — are tiny, occasions to put a dab of red amid against an earth-tone palette.
The hazy light and green undertones of a mountain in the distance in one of Duncanson’s landscapes is complex and beautiful, contrasting with the dark foreground, a cataract bounded by boulders and faintly lit trees. Here is a painter who was not allowed to attend an 1842 Cincinnati exhibit that included three of his portraits because of his race. Duncanson’s is among the great work of the period chosen for inclusion in the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, rising in Bentonville.
Bannister’s palette is lighter, his clouds scumbled, his paint thick. In one painting, small figures emerge from woods into a meadow under a partially dark sky; one edge of the cloud has caught the light from an unseen sun. In another landscape, Bannister has dry-brushed in dark black green a willowy tree over an impasto background; his is a beautiful gesture. A biography says Banner was driven to succeed as a black artist after he read in the New York Herald in 1867 an article that said that while black people appreciate art they were “manifestly unable to produce it.”
Porter is mainly known as a painter of floral still lifes, and there are several at Hearne — a single rose against a black background (Hearne’s favorite), a bunch of blue-white flowers in a blue-white vase. But his landscape of a full moon reflected over a stream and catching the edges of streamside grasses and treeless branches is stunning. It’s one of those paintings that loom large in memory, though it is only 18 by 24 inches. Porter, though he had patrons in Frederic Edwin Church and Mark Twain and may have been the first African-American artist to study at the National Academy of Design in New York, died in poverty.
Tanner’s painting “The Banjo Lesson,” in the collection of Hampton University in Virginia, depicts an older man teaching a young boy to play the banjo — a subject that others might have used to denigrate his people but which Tanner rendered as a scene of tender dignity. A pencil and watercolor sketch for the painting is among the works at Hearne. There are also drawings and pastels by Tanner here, including “Three Ruths,” a dark and painterly pastel of Christ’s body being taken to the tomb.
The exhibit opens Friday, Nov. 12, as part of 2nd Friday Art Night; collector Juan Rodriguez will give a gallery talk at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. In December, the gallery will be transformed into a salon with period furniture and young actors from Central High School portraying the artists in living history presentations. Parkview students will provide music. Visitors to the exhibit will be encouraged to vote for their favorite piece; the favorites will be revealed at the closing reception in January, when professional actors will join the students to portray the artists at the end of their careers.
Second Friday Art Night runs 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.