Erased Black Visual Artists in Early Boston

A biography of three black visual artists based in Boston in the 18th and 19th centuries

Curated by Paula Hornstein


Boston is highly regarded by locals and visitors alike for its celebration of the arts. Artists guilds, art shows, and short-term exhibits are commonplace in the present day. The Museum of Fine Arts is known for its abundance of paintings and its diversity of collections from around the world. Its place in Boston’s history is significant in the evolution of its current art scene, yet there is an undeniable lack of black artist representation.
Since the founding of Boston, black artists have been systematically silenced. Until the mid-twentieth century, with the creation of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, a center for black artist education and appreciation did not exist in the city. This exhibit stands to showcase the lives and works of black visual artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that have been previously erased from our history.
The artists included in this exhibit are Scipio Moorhead, Edmonia Lewis, and Edward Bannister. These figures are alike in their deliberate overcoming of barriers that kept them from profiting from their art to the extent that they deserved. These barriers include, but are not limited to, slavery, interpersonal racism, and institutional racism. It is the intent of this exhibit to focus on the lives and stories of these artists, rather than addressing their artwork at length.
It is important to note that this list is incredibly distant from a comprehensive list of black artists in early Boston. These are simply the artists who had some amount of tangible recognition in that there exists some records of them and their works; the same cannot be said for most black artists in early Boston. It is the hope of the author that this exhibit will promote further exploration of unrecognized and overlooked black artists preceding the twentieth century.

Scipio Moorhead

Scipio Moorhead was a portaiter born around 1750 (1). He was the slave of Reverend John Moorhead in Boston. Sarah Moorhead, the wife of the Reverend, was an art teacher and is credited for teaching Moorhead to read, write, and draw (1).
Moorhead is known for his talent in portraiture. He is the likely artist behind the Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley, the engraving that graced the cover of Wheatley’s poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral , published in 1773 (1). At the time of the poetry’s publishing, Phyllis Wheatley was still a slave to John and Susanna Wheatley (1). This is significant because the engraving was likely the first art commission for a slave by an artist who was also a slave. The engraving has also been recognized as the contemporary style for portraiture of the era (1).
None of Moorhead’s original work has been salvaged. However, his legacy is referenced in two of Wheatley’s poems (1). The first can be found in her Poems on Various Subjects collection, “To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.” The second poem, published at an unspecified later date, is entitled “Scipio Moorhead, Negro servant to the Rev. Moorhead of Boston, whose genius inclined him that way.”
It is unknown whether Moorhead was ever freed. He was sold by the Moorheads in 1775 as part of an estate sale with the buyer not on record (1). In 1780, general abolition in Massachusetts was achieved, although no record of Moorhead as a free man exists (1). Additionally, no other artwork has been attributed to his name other than what is suggested by Wheatley’s poems (1). With his artwork lost, Moorhead’s significance as a slave artist in early Boston has been largely concealed by history.

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis is known as the first African American sculptor to be recognized for her work (2). She was born in 1843 or 1845 to a free African American father and a Native American mother, a member of the Chippewa tribe (2). Lewis was orphaned at a young age (2). In the care of the tribe, Lewis was taught to make and sell wooden and clay artwork (2). Her brother, a miner in California during the Gold Rush, sponsored her move in 1863 to Boston, where she began to work as a sculptor under Edward Brackett (2).
In her early work, Lewis mainly sculpted portrait busts of abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, John Brown, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, along with figures from her African American and Native American ancestry (2). Her later work includes mythological and Christian characters. She is most known for the recreation of Michelangelo’s Moses, as well as her original Hagar. These works, along with Poor Cupid, The Death of Cleopatra, and two versions of Old Arrow Maker, can be found in the Smithsonian.
Just one of her busts of abolitionists, The Bust of Anna Quincy Waterston, can be found at the Smithsonian. Anna Quincy Waterston, a Bostonian writer and poet, was a major patron and celebrator of Lewis and her work (2). She published a poem entitled, “Edmonia Lewis, (The young colored woman who has successfully modeled the bust of Colonel Shaw),” praising the artist’s “gift so rare as genius” in creating marble masterpieces. Most of Lewis’s sculptures have been lost (2).
With the sponsorship of Waterston and the successes of her abolitionist busts, Lewis relocated in 1864 from Boston to Rome, where she hoped to be more respected as a black sculptor (2). In Rome, Lewis joined a group of women sculptors and began to create art that was slightly more varied and political: biblical events, memories from her Native American heritage, and scenes of the oppression of black people (2). Even outside of the United States, she created her work almost entirely independently to eliminate the possibility of someone else getting the credit (2).
To achieve her status as a sculptor, Lewis was forced to overcome many racially charged obstacles in her life (2). While a student at Oberlin College, she was accused of poisoning two white students and was asked to leave (2). After her move to Rome, there is no record of her permanently returning to Boston or anywhere else in the United States (2). Most of her marble works no longer exist, resulting in a lack of much-deserved recognition in the present day.

Edward Mitchell Bannister

Edward Mitchell Bannister was a tonalist painter who received unprecedented recognition for his work as a black man in 19th century New England.
Bannister was born in 1828 in New Brunswick, Canada (3). His father was from Barbados, and his mother’s origins are unknown (3). Lewis was orphaned at the age of 15, after which he was placed in foster care with a white family (3). He later became a sailor and moved to Boston in 1848. In Boston, he developed a love for the fine arts and enrolled in sculpture, art, and painting classes (3).
Bannister’s motivation to become a successful artist came from an article in the New York Herald that stated, “The Negro seems to have an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it” (3). When he first arrived in Boston he worked as a barber while learning to paint at the Lowell Institute (3).
Bannister began to achieve recognition for his work in the 1870s (3). He painted mostly landscapes and became successful enough to live off his commissions (3). Bannister completed hundreds of paintings in his lifetime (3). As his career progressed so did his style, from oil heavy impasto to lighter impasto to impressionism (3). The Smithsonian contains 122 of his pieces, including the few surviving from the 1840s and 1850s, such as Dorchester (3). His paintings are often described as tranquil and calm. By the end of his career, his works ranged from landscapes to still lifes to images of daily life (3).
Despite Bannister’s political motivation to succeed as an artist, his paintings were never political (3). While the figures of his paintings are assumed to be white, he made many comments on the status of black people (specifically, black artists) in the United States during his life (3). His accomplishments often came with challenges due to his race (3). In 1976, Bannister was awarded the bronze medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition for his painting, Under the Oaks , which has since been lost (3). Upon realizing his race, the judges tried to revoke the award, yet his white competitors ensured that he received the prize (3).
At the height of his career, Bannister relocated to Rhode Island with his wife and family (3). He was a founder of the Providence Art Club and an original board member for the Rhode Island School of Design (3). After his death in 1901, Bannister’s work was largely ignored until its resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement (3). Today, his work is relatively unknown and uncelebrated even in Boston and Rhode Island, the places in which his impact was greatest.

Elma Lewis and the Pursuit of a Space for Black Artists in Boston

On a national level, there was virtually no appreciation for black artists before the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Yet, even in the present day, it remains difficult for African American artists to achieve recognition for their art.
In the mid-20th century, Elma Lewis, a ballerina and an activist, sought to create a space for black artists in Boston (4). Lewis lived in Roxbury her entire life and was a strong advocate for her community (4). In an interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art Oral History Program, Lewis spoke of the importance of racial uplift as well as her parents’ and community’s perspectives on the matter (4). In her words, “We were raised to do good, to be good people, advance the cause of other people” (4).
Lewis was born in 1921 (4). Her parents both were emigrants from Barbados, who raised her on Garveyism, the empowerment of African American men and women based on the foundation of African heritage as taught by Marcus Garvey (4). Lewis attended Emerson University and received her Masters in Education from Boston University (4). She taught speech therapy, as well as dance, drama, and fine arts at multiple locations throughout the Boston area, including the Cambridge Community Center and the Harriet Tubman House (4).
Lewis opened her school of fine arts in 1950 (4). In addition to teaching ballet and modern dance, she also introduced pan-African dancing (4). The majority of her students were from the Roxbury community (4). In 1968, Lewis founded the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), a home base in which local artists could collaborate and exhibit their works (4). The NCAAA still exists in the present day, providing a space to showcase the art of African-Americans from across the country (4).
You can support the NCAAA and the pursuit of acknowledging African American artists at

Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead (c. 1773)

Hagar by Edmonia Lewis (1875)

Anna Quincy Waterston by Edmonia Lewis (1866)

Moses (after Michelangelo) by Edmonia Lewis (1875)

Dorchester by Edward Bannister (1856)

Swale Land by Edward Bannister (1898)

Sunset by Edward Bannister (1883)

Elma Lewis by Larry Johnson


1. “Scipio Moorhead, an early artist in America,” published by the African American Registry, from
Appiah, A., & Gates, Henry Louis. (2005). Africana : The Encyclopedia of the African and African American experience (2nd ed.). Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
2. “The Smithsonian American Art Museum Biography on Edmonia Lewis,” from
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)
3. “The Smithsonian American Art Museum Biography on Edward Mitchell Bannister,” from
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)
4. Oral history interview with Elma Lewis, 1997 July 25 and Sept. 19, 1997, from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art Oral History Program