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
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.
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
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.
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
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.