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Unsung masters of American art

THREE Afro-American artists produced a body of work in the latter part of the 19th century that places them among the century's masters of American painting. They accomplished this despite the fact that Afro-Americans' avenues of training were restricted by the existence of slavery until 1865 and despite general biased expectations that they had creative limitations. Such expectations resulted in little patronage for them when they did get academic training.

The three artists were Robert S. Duncanson (1821-71), Edward M. Bannister ( 1828-1901), and Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937). Their art can now be evaluated by standards that have evolved in the study of American and world art. For example, perhaps it has taken the spaciousness of Mark Rothko's color swaths in our own century to open our eyes to Duncanson's achievement. He painted cold vastness with a promise of springtime's warmth.

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Fortunately, a work by one of these artists, Tanner, was added to the current major exhibition, ''A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910,'' which is now in Paris after showings in Boston and Washington. The original omission of all three reflects the difficulties of Afro-American artists gaining mainstream reputations, even when they were recognized in their own day and their names have have been kept alive through the efforts of a number of Afro-American scholars.

Bannister, for instance, was a frequent exhibitor in the Boston Arts Club in the 1870s and was the only medal winner from New England in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Duncanson won the commission in 1848 for eight murals in the building that was to become the Taft Museum in Cincinnati.

The lack of knowledge about these painters is a result of the exclusion of any mention of Afro-American artists of the 19th century from the standard textbooks that have purported to trace the history of American art. The discussion of some of these artists is beyond the scope of this article. Afro-American artists like Joshua Johnston (1765-1830), and Julian Hudson (active 1830-40) can only be evaluated in the context of American self-taught artists like William Matthew Prior (1806-73), and Joseph Badger (1708-65).

The work of Duncanson, Bannister, and Tanner, however, can be seen within the contexts of specific movements in American and world art. Their mastery of the tools of composition, linear and aerial perspective, design-compatible distortions, color, and plasticity can be looked at in relationship to both the spirit of the art of their times and their originality.

The national art of the period reflected both the attraction of the untamed wilderness west of the meeting of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and a longing for a linkage to the Greco-Roman ideal of Western civilization. Thomas Cole reflects these tendencies in his ''In Nature's Wilderness'' (1835), and in his classical scene, ''Mt. Etna From Taormina'' (1844). Worthington Whittredge treated the wilderness in ''The Crow's Nest'' (1848), and Frederick E. Church painted ''The Parthenon'' (1871). Duncanson reflected both of these trends in such paintings as ''The Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River'' (1851) and ''Landscape with Classical Ruins'' (1859).

Duncanson's ''Valley of Lake Pepin, Minnesota'' (1859) carried the response to the Western landscape to new levels of directness and simplicity. In the foreground we see springlike grass and vegetation. The mid-distance still has the tans and browns of earth in a state of thaw. The distant lake and mountains have the coldness of winter. The clouds carry the frigid atmosphere upward, gently echoing in its pale edges the rapid curvature of the trees below. Compositional balance is achieved by a subtle reintroduction of the green of the foreground to relieve middle-ground tans in an arc that links up with the bluish tone of the mountains.

It is a risky effort on Duncanson's part. The distance in the landscape, rendered in understated forms, introduced into American art a subtle sense of the quiet vastness of the northern wilderness. The simplicity of its rendering, while establishing an atmosphere of reality, calls to mind earlier work of the German, Caspar David Friedrich, and presages compositions like Whistler's ''The Pacific'' (1866).

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Bannister was one of the first American artists to move the aesthetic of the Barbizon School to the edges of Impressionism. Long active in New England, he quite likely knew of the acclaim received by William Morris Hunt's ''Plowing'' when the painting was shown in Boston in 1876. In that painting Hunt applied his colors in broad strokes of the brush and palette knife, giving the alla prima feel of work done in the out-of-doors. The setting now was rural, reflecting an environment beginning to feel the push of Eastern suburban expansion.

Bannister was a pioneer in the expression of this urban-suburban environment's special quality of human encroachment and tamed nature. In establishing the broken-color, semi-dry brush technique that allowed distinct hues to be blended in the spectator's eye, Bannister was clearly a leader in painterly strategies that European exposure provided for painters like Mary Cassatt and later for Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and others. In most of Bannister's suburban landscapes his color is closer to the subdued palette of the German explorers of Impressionist modes, such as Max Liebermann, although his ''Street Scene'' (ca. 1895) is in the brilliant, sunny colors of the French School.

In his ''Landscapes'' of 1877-98 Bannister plumbed the aesthetic possibilities of the near horizon. With mid-distance trees rising to the upper regions of the picture plane, he developed the subtle rhythms of foreground merging with dense foliage. The sky is reduced to a small section of the top of the canvas, suspended above darker undulating colors of earth and trees. Through selective introduction of colors from the vegetation into the sky and linear contours from the clouds in the foreground and trees, Bannister created a two-dimensional design unifying ground and sky.

In the work of Tanner can be found a mastery of the fullest range of academic tools and an unmistakable originality of means. In such works as ''The Banjo Lesson'' (1893) and ''The Thankful Poor'' (before 1890), both natural light sources and Tanner's own invented light function to delineate forms and achieve expressive power. His ''Annunciation'' (1898) carries his daring use of light to new conceptual heights, in that the spirit approaching Mary is pure light. The arches in the room, the contours of Mary's garment, the fold in the carpet, are completely integrated into a composition that focuses the spectator on a shy, innocent girl who is both mystified and won over by the annunciating spirit.

Tanner moved still further into the exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of color and pigment. In his ''The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah'' (undated), Tanner submerges Lot and his wife in an explosion of clouds, smoke, and burning sun. Tanner's approach here is expressionistic. His statement is made through color and roughly laid-in indications of landscape and a conflagrational sky. The shapes of billowing smoke seemingly echo the sounds of cataclysmic destruction. But clouds and landscape are agitated in ways that are integral to Tanner's paint quality, not to the naturalistic rendering of the textures of earth and sky. The work then constitutes an advance toward the use of paint and color in a figurative way. The forms of nature are submerged in the event of painting.

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