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Artworks by Black painters in the Smithsonian Collection

(4 min read) With 19 museums, galleries, and research facilities attracting 22 million people a year, the Smithsonian Institution is among the most-visited attractions in the United States. Travelers from around the world particularly head to Washington D.C.’s National Mall to see the famed Smithsonian castle and neighboring museums. While the air and space museum and the natural history museum draw the biggest crowds, the Smithsonian’s art museums are noteworthy no less. 

As we celebrate the beauty of diversity and inclusivity this Black History Month, we examine the Smithsonian collections for artworks painted by pioneering African American artists. 


Kiss from a rose

Black history month Artwork by Charles Ethan
Still Life with Roses, Charles Ethan Porter (1847 – 1923), Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Painted on linen, Still Life with Roses depicts a bouquet of five off-white blooms with sprays of greenery in a deep brown bowl. Scattered around the bowl are several other blossoms and some more vegetation. Peeking from behind is a cluster of bright red holly. Hanging in the background is a yellow, red, and white plaid textile. 

Charles Ethan Porter was well-known for his still-life works. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Porter showed talent at a young age, but racial discrimination made it difficult for him to find training. Born to a free African-American family in Connecticut, Porter later studied art in New York and Paris.


Sweet violets

Black History Month Art by Pauline Powell Burns
Violets, Pauline Powell Burns (1872 – 1912), Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A cluster of violets, painted in navy blues and deep purples, lie in a messy heap against a light gray surface and backdrop. This oil painting, titled Violets, was painted around 1890 by Pauline Powell Burns. Like Porter, California-born Burns demonstrated creative talent at a tender age and pursued years of study. An 1890 exhibition of Burn’s paintings was the first by an African-American artist in the state. 


Paint it black

Black history month Artwork by Malvin Gray Johnson
Self-Portrait, Malvin Gray Johnson (1896 – 1934), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation.

The tightly compressed space in Johnson’s 1934 self-portrait speaks volumes about the modern artist. The easel on the left side of the painting refers to his artistic profession. The masks in the background strongly allude to his African-American heritage. (Art history texts cite African masks as an influence on modern art.)

The artwork’s exhibition label further states that 1934 proved to be Johnson’s most prolific and the last year of his short life.


Sea change

Black history month art by Edward Mitchell Bannister
Boat on Sea, Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828 – 1901), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of J. Wesley Johnson.

Seascapes and coastlines were a favorite subject for trading ship cook and painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. In this undated rendering of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, Bannister focuses his attention on the warm coastal sunset. The Smithsonian American Art Museums writes that he painted nature as a calm and submissive force in his work.


Ebb and flow

Black History month art by Edward Mitchell Bannister
Landscape near Newport, R. I., Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828 – 1901), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ronald E. Deal.

Canadian-born artist Edward Mitchell Bannister and his wife moved from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island. In the 1870s, Providence had a rapidly growing immigrant population, and African Americans struggled to look for job opportunities. Nevertheless, Bannister made a name for himself by painting pastoral landscapes, such as the coastline portrayed above, for wealthy patrons. 


Genius belongs to everyone

What we’ve featured is just the tip of the creativity iceberg. There many more paintings, most of which are striking and moving, by African-American artists in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Explore their collections online, and be amazed by the outpouring of artistic expression and ingenuity. 

On your next trip to Washington, D.C., take the time to discover the different Smithsonian museums. There are museums dedicated to African-American history and culture, American art, and African art. Their fine collections alone will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings. 


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C. Tensuan

C. Tensuan

Carla Tensuan is a specialized content writer and visual arts enthusiast who writes about the arts, mosaic art, Interior Design, and the latest trends in decor.

39 Comments

  1. Jessica Collazo
    February 24, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    These are pieces are super impressive and just breathtaking

  2. Kimberly Rambles
    February 24, 2021 at 1:56 pm

    I love that you highlighted these artists! I hope the museums here in the DC area open soon and we can go with the kids to enjoy them. I love that soon as I saw the Edward Mitchell Bannister piece I knew it was New England and goodness I miss home. He did a beautiful job.

  3. Stephanie
    February 24, 2021 at 5:57 pm

    You’re right, I’ve been to DC a few times, but never to the art museums. I am drawn particularly to the painting Ebb and Flow, but that could be my love of the beach and the water.

  4. Joline
    February 24, 2021 at 6:23 pm

    I think we skipped the art museums and went straight for the air and space lol. These look stunning and definitely worth a visit when we go back.

  5. Knashz
    February 25, 2021 at 3:37 am

    Aaaah, there’s something satisfying about seeing really nice artwork.

  6. Krysten Quiles
    February 25, 2021 at 7:54 am

    These are so lovely, thank you for sharing with us!

  7. Selly
    February 25, 2021 at 8:19 am

    These aren’t mosaics, I was surprise as I am used to your mosaic features, but these paintings are all lovely!

  8. Annette
    February 25, 2021 at 9:10 am

    These look like beautiful, vibrant pieces of work. Would be amazing to see them in person.

  9. Fransic verso
    February 25, 2021 at 10:57 am

    It’s fun looking at the wall arts. These look so cool and the details are perfect.

  10. Lyanna Soria
    February 25, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Those are all wonderful pieces of artwork. I’ve always had a thing for flower related paintings, they look nice.

  11. Luna S
    February 25, 2021 at 11:02 am

    These are all beautiful, but my favorite is the violets.

  12. denise
    February 25, 2021 at 11:20 am

    these pieces of artwork are beautiful and amazing. Love them

  13. Serena
    February 25, 2021 at 11:24 am

    Oh my gosh I love (and sooooo miss) visiting the Smithsonian. These are some great examples of the fabulous paintings they house.

  14. Wren LaPorte
    February 25, 2021 at 11:52 am

    These are such beautiful pieces of work! I have always wanted to go and see them in person!

  15. Patricia Chamberlain
    February 25, 2021 at 11:54 am

    These are all beautiful paintings! I can’t wait to visit D.C and all it’s wonderful museums again!

  16. Jasmine Martin
    February 25, 2021 at 11:58 am

    This artwork is absolutely gorgeous. I’m a huge fan of the Boat on Sea by Edward Mitchell Bannister.

  17. Moni
    February 25, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    These are really beautiful. All these painters are so good!

  18. Catherine
    February 25, 2021 at 1:15 pm

    Beautiful exhibit..Kiss from a Rose is my favorite. I would love to visit the Smithsonian again soon!

  19. Heather
    February 25, 2021 at 2:22 pm

    These are all gorgeous! I would love to see this collection in person one day.

  20. Kuntala Bhattacharya
    February 25, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    The paintings look so real and gorgeous. Amazing artwork, hats off I must say.

  21. Sella
    February 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    Every single piece presented in this post is stunning. But in real life, they are masterpieces.

  22. Indie
    February 25, 2021 at 6:29 pm

    These are such beautiful paintings. My favourite has to be SEA CHANGE.

  23. Bella
    February 25, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    all these are stunning, i love all of them. i still need to get art work for my house.

  24. vidya
    February 25, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    Beautiful paintings indeed….
    I recently read about Laura Wheeler Waring in a children’s biography about her, and she is another artist whose work is displayed there.

  25. Emily Terrell
    February 25, 2021 at 9:04 pm

    These are marvelous works of art! I have always loved roaming museums and galleries. Such beautiful talent to behold 🙂

  26. Jay Aguirre
    February 25, 2021 at 10:50 pm

    Great list and a great way to bring attention to Black artists. Hopefully more art museums start to showcase more work from a diverse group of people.

  27. Melissa Cushing
    February 25, 2021 at 10:59 pm

    These are all beautiful works of art and I would love to get there to see them in person for sure 🙂

  28. Nikki Wayne
    February 26, 2021 at 12:20 am

    Breathtaking paintings. Boat on the sea would be my favorite

  29. Lyosha
    February 26, 2021 at 4:08 am

    beautiful paintings, very selection! the colors are so warm and pleasing, somehow I captivated by self portrait, the eyes are mesmerizing

  30. Kathy K.
    February 26, 2021 at 8:04 am

    I love their artwork. I feel like it has more depth and passion than the usual. It would be a great addition to a collection.

  31. Sonia Seivwright
    February 26, 2021 at 8:19 am

    I love the paintings. very creative.

  32. Chiache
    February 26, 2021 at 9:09 am

    These paintings are really impressive! My favorite is the Sea Change. Lovely!

  33. Lanie
    February 26, 2021 at 2:24 pm

    Some beautiful pieces you have featured here of the Smithsonian collection, my fav is the self portrait of Malvin Gray Johnson

  34. Annie Mason
    February 26, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    These are wonderful works by black artists featured in the Smithsonian collection. It is so important to note the prevalence of African American artists who have been living in the shadows for so long.

  35. Melanie williams
    February 27, 2021 at 7:55 am

    How lovely are all these artwork pieces here. It is nice to explore the art world that is for sure x

  36. Melissa Cushing
    February 27, 2021 at 7:58 am

    These are all wonderful works of art and I love checking out pieces and works of art from all cultures.

  37. Marta Skeledžija
    February 27, 2021 at 8:32 am

    Oh that art work is stunning…Thanks for sharing it with us…

  38. Rosey
    February 27, 2021 at 10:46 am

    The Sweet Violets is a vibe. They are all nice but that is my favorite.

  39. Viano
    February 28, 2021 at 4:38 pm

    A very interesting read. It’s lovely to see how these African Americans were able to stand out despite their race.