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Prominent 19th Century Artists of Color

February is Black History Month, where we as a nation take time to reflect on the contributions African-Americans have made on us as a society. So much of their history has been lost; erased due to prejudice and racism. They were influential in so many aspects of American culture. Many African-Americans of the past and present do not always get the recognition they deserve in the arts. Although it is difficult now to find artists that held prominence before the contemporary movement, here are some of the artists that helped create wonderful works during the 19th century.

Edward Mitchell Bannister

Edward Bannister was an American artist that represented the east coast, living primarily on Rhode Island. As a painter he captured the beauty of lush landscapes depicting mostly rural settings. His work did not reflect his political views, because he preferred to follow a more spiritual path that indicated harmony and liberty in a more universal way. Both he and his wife were active during the fight for abolition and the Civil War. Bannister was able to develop his artistic style without any European influence, studying only artists here in America. Although, lost for most of his lifetime, his works found a new audience in the 1970’s during the civil rights movement.

Robert Scott Duncanson

Robert Scott Duncanson was an artist of European and African descent who grew up a free man in antebellum America. He created breathtaking landscapes inspired by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. He garnered support from both the American and Europe art world, making him one of the first internationally known African-American artists. His work was bolstered by many famous abolitionists and many people thought he included his personal views in his art. One famous piece, Uncle Tom and Little Eva, depicts a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today the original hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor that was born in New York City, but spent most of her life and career living in Rome. She is considered one of the first people of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international success in the world of sculpture. Her work interprets themes from both sides of her heritage in a Neo-classic style. A major milestone in her career was creating a marble statue called Death of Cleopatra that weighed in at over three thousand pounds. It was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994 and displayed after restoration.

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner was a painter who grew up in the Northeast and was the first African-American student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. He eventually moved to Paris to further his studies. He was easily accepted by the French art world, and received the opportunity to show his work in the famous Paris Salon. It was a stark contrast to the level of racism he had face while living and working in the United States after the Civil War. His work often had religious or biblical themes, but occasionally he would also include the viewpoint of his culture. One of his most famous works, The Banjo Lesson, shows a common stereo type of the African-American as an entertainer, but in a sensitive and realistic way.


This is only a small sampling of the amazing talent that the African-American community had in art history. While some of those artists found recognition during the civil rights movements, many are still not well-known or still undiscovered. We are not able to carry all works by all artists, but we do encourage our customers to submit new art they find to be custom quoted as a piece. We love finding new paintings by brilliant past artists that we might not have known before.

About the Author

Amanda graduated from the University of Kansas, where she studied English literature and got a masters degree in library sciences. She enjoys reading, cooking and playing with her nephews. Her best friend is her little dog Brady.