PROVIDENCE — A painting by Edward Mitchell Bannister, an acclaimed Black, 19th century Rhode Island artist, sold for $277,200 recently at a Sotheby’s auction.
“The Palmer River,” which is oil on canvas and dated “85″ in the lower left corner of the painting, had an estimated value prior to the auction of $50,000 to $70,000.
Dan Mechnig, former president of the Providence Art Club, purchased the painting in 1985 for $17,500, according to an article in GoLocal Prov.
Since then, the work has traveled throughout New England, featured in exhibits at the Gilbert Stuart Museum in Saunderstown, R.I., and at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston for the show, “Mapping Realism: Paintings from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium and American Collections.”
A report of the painting, provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation Inc. in New York, said the work was in “beautiful condition.” Previously, the highest price for a Bannister painting at an auction was $75,000.
Bannister was known to enter painting competitions without disclosing his background. He would later write that the people around him would wonder, “What is a colored person in here for?”
When he won a competition at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, a group of exhibition affiliates reportedly tried to revoke his award, but failed. But it wasn’t until 1885 when he discovered by reading the Chicago Times that his painting, only recorded as “No. 54″ with no other identifying information, had won first prize.
He told the newspaper at the time, “I was and am proud to know that the jury of award did not know anything about me, my antecedents, color or race. There was no sentimental sympathy leading to the award of the medal.”
Bannister was awarded his first commission by Dr. John V. DeGrasse, a leading member of the Boston’s Black community, leading Bannister to join a collective of flourishing Black artists. And yet, at the same time in Boston, he was frequently denied access by the established, but predominantly white arts community for basic training, educational apprenticeships, and European travel.
Bannister spent the last 25 years of his life in Providence, where he was intent on building the city up as the region’s cultural center. In 1872, he took a studio at the Woods Building and worked there for the remainder of his career.
He was a founding board member of the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1870s, and helped establish the Providence Art Club in 1880. A house close to Brown University was restored and named for him, and many of his paintings are now safeguarded at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.