Celebrating Black Artists for Black History Month – Visual Art

Updated: May 4

3 Influential Black Visual Artists

The Banjo Lesson Crop
Crop of "The Banjo Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner

One post, article, or even month can not possibly encapsulate the significant contributions that Black artists have made to arts history, it's a start. The following list meant to be a starting place and by no means all-encompassing. Today, we will discover the works of three Black visual artists and begin to become acquainted with their stories. They are ordered chronologically by birth year not ranked. To learn more about Black arts history, I encourage you to explore the stories including Black artists before the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance, the creation of Jazz culture, Gospel music, the evolution of Hip Hop as art and culture, and many more topics. See the Further Reading links at the bottom on this post for some informative pages. To read about the story of Black History Month and to learn about five composers of the Black African diaspora, see the previous post, Celebrating Black Artists for Black History Month – Music.

Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821 – 1872)


 Robert S. Duncanson
Robert S. Duncanson

Robert S. Duncanson was born into a family of free Black tradespeople in Fayette, NY in 1821. His family twas originally from Virgina but had relocated to New York. His family eventually moved to Michigan where apprenticed in the family trades of housepainting and carpentry. Without a formal art education, he taught himself to paint artistic works by copying portraits and landscapes.


Duncanson was inspired by famous American landscape artists such as Thomas Cole (Feb. 1, 1801 – Feb.11, 1848) to focus on landscape paintings. His landscapes were, in fact, so renowned that he was was acclaimed the "greatest landscape painter in the west" by the American and European press. At the age of 19, Duncanson chose to relocate to Mt. Healthy, a town near Cincinnati, OH due to the areas arts community. He spent the majority of his career in around Cincinnati and helped develop the Ohio River Valley landscape tradition.


As a free black man in America before the Civil War, Duncanson found support and patronage in the abolitionist community in the United States and Great Britain. He is considered the first African-American artist to achieve international fame and was part of the art circles in Cincinnati, Detroit, Montréal, and London, England.


Portrait of J.P. Ball, photographer and date unknown
Portrait of J.P. Ball, photographer and date unknown

Starting in 1854, Duncanson worked at the photography studio of James Presley Ball, Sr. (1825 – May 4, 1904), an African-American photographer who worked in early photography. Ball was a prominent photographer, working in a type of early photography known as daguerreotype. Ball traveled and took photographs depicting American life of the time. Duncanson worked int he studio retouching portraits and coloring photographic prints. In 1855, Ball published an abolitionist pamphlet accompanied by a 600-yard-long panoramic painting which Duncanson worked on called Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade. The work traveled the country showing Americans across the nation the realties of slavery.


In 1851, Ducanson recovered his first major commission, creating murals for the home of wealthy banker in Cincinnati, Nicholas Longworth. The Duncanson Murals still grace the walls of the former Longworth home, which is now the Taft Museum of Art. Watch the video below to see the museum's curator take you on a tour of the beautiful murals.



During the Civil War, Duncan left the United States for Canada and England. In 1863, he moved to Montréal, where he would work for the next two years. Duncanson was inspired by the Canadian landscape, as is evident from his works produced then. Duncanson had tremendous influence on the art world in 19th century Canada and is credited with inspiring the school of Canadian landscape painting. In 1865, he left Canada for Great Britain, to exhibit one of his most well-known works, inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson's (Aug. 6, 1809 – Oct. 6, 1892) poem of the same name, The Land of the Lotus Eaters of 1861. Duncanson knew this work was going to be his masterpiece and planed to tour with it before it was even completed. Another one of his most famous works that was also inspired by a poem is Ellen's Isle (1871) which was inspired by Sir Walter Scott's poem, Lady of the Lake.


Duncanson's pastoral paintings remain some of the finest examples of landscape paintings. g. Though he suffered from declining health and erratic behavior, he continued to paint. In 1872, he had a seizure while working on an exhibition in Detroit. He died DEc. 21, 1872 at the age of only 51. He was buried in Monroe, MI.


Duncanson's pastoral paintings remain some of the finest examples of landscape paintings. He paintings offer a sense of hope, serenity, and calm to the viewer. Although his fame faded after his death, interest in his work has resurffaced in recent years. His work, Landscape with Rainbow (1859) was selected as the inaugurated painting for Joe Biden's inauguration last month by his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who said, "'I like the rainbow—good things to follow."


Selected Paintings (Click to expand.)

Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861, Private Collection

Loch Long, 1867, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ellen's Isle, Loch Katrine, 1871, Detroit Institute of Arts



Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937)


Tanner, portrait by his teacher Thomas Eakins, 1900.
Tanner, portrait by his teacher Thomas Eakins, 1900.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born on June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, PA. The oldest of nine children, Tanner was the son of an African Method Episcopal minister (later bishop) and schoolteacher and a former slave who had fled for freedom via the Underground Railroad. He achieved an international reputation through his religious paintings. Their deep spirituality was influenced by both his upbringing as a minister’s son and his visits to the Holy Land. His famous works include religious works such as "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus By Night" and "The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water" as well as moving intimate scenes from turn of the century life such as "The Thankful Poor" and "The Banjo Lesson." (See these four featured works in the gallery below.)


Tanner grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Robert Vaux School, an all-Black institution school that was one of the only to offer a liberal arts curriculum. Though his father did not want him to become an artist, Henry knew from childhood that he was meant to paint. By 13, he decided he was going to be a professional artist. Throughout his teen years, he painted and drew as much as he could. After falling significantly ill while fulfilling an apprenticeship at a flour mill, he recuperated by staying home and painting and further developing his talent for the arts.


By 1880, Tanner regained his health and resumed a normal life, enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studying under influential artists and teacher Thomas Eakins. (See Eakins portrait of Tanner above.) Tanner left school early and moved to Atlanta where he taught art at Clark College and ran a gallery.


Tanner Family Portrait: Jesse and Jessie on the left and Henry at the far right
Tanner Family Portrait: Jesse and Jessie on the left and Henry at the far right

In 1891, Tanner's traveled to Europe to exhibit his work and study art. In Paris, Tanner enrolled in the Académie Julian where the artists Jean-Paul Laurens (March 28, 1838 – March 23, 1921) and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (June 10, 1845 – May 26, 1902) were among his teachers. It was not long after his arrival in Paris that he painted two of his most important works depicting every day African-American subjects, The Banjo Lesson of 1893 and The Thankful Poor of 1894.


By the mid-1890s, Tanner was a success, critically admired on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1899, he painted one of his most famous religious works, "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus," an oil on canvas depicting the biblical figure Nicodemus meeting with Jesus. For this work, he won the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Lippincott Prize in 1900. Also in 1899, Tanner married a Swedish-American opera singer, Jessie Olssen. Their son, named Jesse, was born in 1903.


In 1908, Tanner had his first one-man exhibition of religious paintings in the United States It was held at the American Art Galleries in New York. Two years after that, Tanner was elected a member of the National Academy of Design, becoming the first African-American to become a full academician of the academy in 1927. In 1923, he was received France’s highest honor and was made an honorary Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor.


Towards the end of his life, Tanner was a symbol of hope and inspiration for many African-American leaders and young black artists, many of whom visited him in Paris. On May 25, 1937, Tanner died at his home in Paris. Many of his papers, including correspondence and photographs, are part of the Smithsonian Collection in Washington, D.C.


Selected Paintings (Click to expand.)

Nicodemus Visiting Jesus By Night, 1899, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, c. 1907, Des Moines Art Center

The Thankful Poor, 1894, Private Collection

The Banjo Lesson, 1893, Hampton University Museum


Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877–1968)

Fuller c.1910

Meta Warrick Fuller was born in Philadelphia, PA on June 9, 1877. She is most well-known for her sculpture but was also an accomplished poet, painter, and theater designer. Her art career became in her teens when one of her high-school projects was chosen to be included in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts in 1897 (now Pennsylvania College of Art) on scholarship and later abroad in Paris, France in 1899. In France, she studied sculpture at the Académie Colarossi and drawing at La École des Beaux Arts. She exhibited at Samuel Bing’s L’Art Nouveau Gallery in Paris in 1900. She was a protègé of sculptor Auguste Rodin (Nov. 12, 1840 — Nov. 17, 1917) was is considered the "father of modern sculpture." Rodin encourages her to work in her realistic style, which included depicting horrific events of racial injustice and human suffering, such in Danse Macabre of 1914 (below left).


Danse Macabre (1914)
Danse Macabre (1914)

In 1903, Warrick returned to Philadelphia. Due to racist and sexist attitudes, she had a hard time finding her place in the art scene in the United States. However, these attitudes did not prevent her becoming the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. government commission. She created a series of tableaux depicting African-American historical events for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, held in Norfolk, Virginia in 1907. The display included fourteen dioramas with 130 painted plaster figures depicting historic scenes and the home-life of black Americans.



Mary Turner (1914)
Mary Turner (1914)

After a young pregnant Black women was lynched in Lowndes County, GA in 1918 Fuller sculpted In Memory of Mary Turner: As a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (above). She was involved in voting rights issues and sold pieces to support voter registration in the south. She was also involved with the the Equal Suffrage Movement but left the movement once she realized that black women were not included in the fight for equal voting rights.

Ethiopia Awakening (1921)
Ethiopia Awakening (1921)

Her most prominent work, Ethiopia Awakening (1921)—sometimes known as simply Ethiopia— was created for America's Making Exhibition in 1921 (above). This event was meant to highlight the contributions of immigrants to US artistic society and culture. Featured in the exhibition's "colored section," it symbolized a new emerging Black identity and anticipated the Harlem Renaissance. Ethiopia, is based on ancient Egyptian sculpture and shows an African woman emerging from a mummy's wrappings.


Te Adoremus Domine (1930)
Te Adoremus Domine (1930)