Founded in 1951 as a department of the city of Birmingham, the Museum of Art was subject to the same Jim Crow laws that variously established “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks, or excluded them entirely. During the 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans were only allowed to visit the Museum on Tuesdays or “Negro day.” Given this legacy, it is not surprising that the Museum was slow to begin collecting the work of African American artists. That changed in 1971, the same year that Richard Arrington became the first African American elected to the Birmingham City Council (Arthur Shores had been appointed to an empty seat in 1968), pledging to make Birmingham “a city of which all her people can be proud.” That year, the Museum was given a work by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859– 1937), and the following year, it purchased an important painting by David C. Driskell (born 1931) with funds from businessman A. G. Gaston. In the decades that followed, the Museum has strived to do its part to fulfill Richard Arrington’s promise by creating a collection of which all of Birmingham’s people can be proud.
To that end, the Museum recently acquired a superb landscape by Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901), a black Canadian-born landscape painter who moved to New England in the 1840s and became an active and successful participant in the region’s artistic life, despite the adversity of racism. Of this, he once stated, “I have been sustained by an inborn love for art and accomplished all I have undertaken through the severest struggles which, while severe enough for white men, have been enhanced tenfold in my case.”
His monumental painting Under the Oaks (location unknown) received first prize at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. He later described the moment when the prize committee discovered it awarded top honors to a black man, writing, “An explosion could not have made a more marked impression.” Deeply influenced by the French Barbizon School, Bannister painted with a soft, loose touch, using a limited palette of greens, browns, and grays. He took the landscape of his adopted home of Rhode Island as his subject matter and strove to recreate the subtle effects of light and atmosphere found in nature. The painting was purchased in part with funds donated in honor of Norman B. Davis, Jr. Norm and his wife Carnetta are longtime supporters of the BMA and collectors of African-American art. The Bannister hangs in the Styslinger Gallery of American Art next to a still-life by Charles Ethan Porter that the Davis family gave to the BMA in 2014.