Art, Featured, History, Mother Culture

5 Famous African American Artists of the Past You Should Know

Artist study is a beautiful part of the “feast” of learning. However, the artists that have found success in the past and come down to us through history are mostly white men.

Today, however, famous African American artists — men and women — are being rediscovered and their work is being appreciated by new audiences.

For Black History Month, I wanted to explore famous African American artists who have made their mark on history and are worthy of adding to your homeschool picture study.  Consider adding some of these to your rotation or compare work by another historic artist with his African American artist contemporaries.

Learn more about famous African American artists Joshua Johnson, Edward Bannister, Robert Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, and Henry Ossawa Tanner by reading below.

1) Joshua Johnson

One of the first famous African American artists was Joshua Johnson. He was the first black American to make his living by painting portraits.  A contemporary of John Singleton Copley, he painted portraits of colonial era families. He lived in Baltimore in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Johnson was the son of a white man and a black slave owned by another man according to recent research and was eventually freed by his father who bought him.

“As a self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art; and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction.” — Joshua Johnson quoted in Advertisement, “Portrait Painting,” Baltimore Intelligencer, 19 Dec. 1798.

As a “self-taught” genius, Johnson made his way painting portraits of white people in early Baltimore. He was “rediscovered” in the 1930s and research has identified more than 80 portraits that he may have painted in several held in the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum. His work is considered to be painted in the primitive or folk style that has seen a rise in popularity recently.

Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Adelia Ellender
Joshua Johnson, “John Jacob Anderson and Sons, John and Edward”
Joshua Johnson, “Grace Allison McCurdy and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace”


To view more works by famous African American artist Joshua Johnson and learn more about his life:

Smithsonian American Art Museum

National Gallery of Art

Short video about Joshua Johnson and his work (2 minutes)



2) Edward M. Bannister


Edward M. Bannister was born around 1828 in Canada. After his parents died, he lived with his brother on the estate of a wealthy lawyer where he developed his lifelong love of art.

“The results of his pen,” recalled writer and friend George Forbes, “might be seen on the fences and barn door or wherever else he could charcoal or crayon out rude like- nesses of men or things about him.” — from exhibit guide

He later moved to Boston where he taught himself art most likely through viewing art galleries. He was active in Boston’s abolitionist community and some of his early patrons were successful black men and notably Christiana Carteaux, whom he later married.

His work “reflected the composition, mood, and influences of French Barbizon painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Charles-François Daubigny.”

Later in his life he moved to Rhode Island where he was a prominent and important member of its developing art scene including the Providence Art Club.

One of the most prolific of the famous African American artists in our list, nearly 1,000 paintings of his likely remain but are widely dispersed. Recent years have seen several exhibits that have brought many works together including one at the Whitney Museum Kenkelba Gallery in 1993. 


Edward Mitchell Bannister, “The Old House”

Edward Mitchell Bannister, “Untitled”


Edward Mitchell Bannister, “Newspaper Boy”


To view more works by famous African American artist Edward M. Bannister and learn more about his life:

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Google Arts & Culture exhibit
Whitney Museum Exhibit Guide text 

3) Robert Seldon Duncanson


By the 1860s the American press proclaimed Robert Seldon Duncanson the “best landscape painter in the West,” while London newspapers hailed him as the equal of his British contemporaries. Both then and now he rivaled the achievements of American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and John Frederick Kensett, who shaped the country’s early landscape tradition in the Hudson River Valley style.  (from Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections)

Born to an African-American mother and Scottish-Canadian father, Duncanson grew up in New York near the Canadian border in the 1820-1830s.  By 1842 he was known for his painting, exhibiting in Cincinnati Ohio where he moved after childhood. He found patrons among local abolitionists including Nicholas Longworth who commissioned him to paint 8 murals in his home.

Longworth also sponsored his first trip to Europe for. “Grand Tour,” making him the first known African American artist to do so. He traveled throughout the United States and Europe and was friends with many painters who influenced his style.

He died of mental illness that may have been partly a result of lead paint poisoning in 1872.

Robert Duncanson, “Ellen’s Isle”


Robert -Duncanson-Meeting-River"
Robert Duncanson, “Meeting by the River”


Robert Duncanson, “Landscape with Rainbow”

To view more works by famous African American artist Robert Duncanson and learn more about his life:

Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Google Art and Culture

Smithsonian Magazine “America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter”


4) Edmonia Lewis

African-American-artist -Edmonia-Lewis

Edmonia Lewis was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world. She incorporates themes relating to black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture. Born free in New York in 1844, she worked mostly in Rome.

She was of Afro-Haitian and African-American/Native American descent. She attended Oberlin College, one of the first schools to accept women and people of color.  Later she moved to Rome where racism was less overt and made her living as an artist.

In 1876, she participated the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia with a more than 3000 pound sculpture depicting the death of Cleopatra.  One person wrote that it was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition.”  “Death of Cleopatra” is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

Edmonia Lewis, “Old Arrowmaker”


Edmonia Lewis, copy of ancient bust of Octavian


Edmonia Lewis, “Forever Free”


To view more works by famous African American artist Edmonia Lewis and learn more about her life:

Smithsonian  American Art Museum

“The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th-Century America”

“Overlooked No More” — NYT article

• Google Arts & Culture Exhibit

Short video (1 minute) about Edmonia Lewis


5) Henry Ossawa Tanner


Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 in Philadelphia to a free black man who was a bishop in the AME Church and a former slave woman of mixed heritage who had escaped via the Underground Railroad.

His middle name commemorated the struggle at Osawatomie in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery partisans including John Brown in “Bleeding Kansas” prior to the Civil War.

He studied in his youth at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as its only black student out of more than 200. In 1891, Tanner left America for Paris, where he found success an an international artist.  He married Swedish-American opera singer Jessie Olsson and had one son.

On racism he wrote:

I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself. – from Wikipedia

His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions’ Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1923, he was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest national order of merit in France, and considered this “citation by the French government to be the greatest honor of his illustrious career.

Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City hangs in the Green Room at the White House; it is the first painting by an African-American artist to have been purchased for the permanent collection of the White House.

Tanner died in Paris in 1937.

Today he may be one of the most famous African American artists in homeschool circles.  An artist study of his work is available through Riverbend Press  featuring 8 of his works.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Annuciation”


Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City”


To view more works by famous African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and learn more about his life:

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Wikipedia Entry

Google Arts & Culture exhibit

White House History

Khan Academy “The Banjo Lesson”

Video about Henry Ossawa Tanner ( 1 min)

“Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence on America” article


There are many famous African American artists waiting to be discovered. I hope these resources inspire you to add some of these talented black artists to your picture study or art appreciation study.

In the future I am planning to look at modern and contemporary famous African American artists as well. Be sure to follow me on Facebook or Pinterest so you don’t miss anything!

Looking for more art study ideas?

Guggenheim Museum offers 200 free art books 

Live! The Christmas Story in Art with the National Gallery



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *