Boston art exhibit criticized for overlooking black American painters

A popular exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century American paintings at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is drawing fire from a group of black professors and artists who say the museum has failed to include works by black painters of the period.

''No one is attacking their (museum staff member's) . . . expertise,'' says Dana Chandler, an associate professor at Simmons College. ''They simply did not include some other folk. The exhibition is purported to represent masterpieces of American painting, which it does not. It represents masterpieces of American white painting. We think it should be inclusionary, not exclusionary.''

The show - ''A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910'' - was organized at the invitation of the Musee du Louvre in Paris. It will travel to the Grand Palais this spring after 21/2 months at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

Some 110 paintings by 49 artists are included in the show which focuses on major American painters such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, John Singleton Copley, and George Caleb Bingham.

The half-dozen black artists of the era who were left out, the group charges, include:

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins and at the Academie Julien in Paris. Tanner won hundreds of prizes in the US and Europe and was designated a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901). A driving force behind the Rhode Island School of Design, Bannister won a bronze medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia but was not admitted to the gallery.

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872). He was once recognized by the London Art Journal as ''the equal of any landscape artist in England.''

Chandler asks: ''How can you send the show around the country and to Paris and exclude Americans?'' He says the museum still could include several paintings before the the exhibition travels to Washington.

''It would be clarifying thought; a way of correcting a gross error. They (the museum staff) are more concerned with their reputation. They believe no one else thinks the paintings have any worth. The museum has always practiced the art of exclusion. It's a closed club,'' he says.

The museum staff met late yesterday with the protesters. Jan Fontein, the museum's director, suggests the group may have a case arguing for Henry Tanner, but says there are no plans to change the exhibition.

''Any selection for any exhibition can be criticized. I don't think anybody realizes that we try to make the best show we can make,'' Mr. Fontein says. ''We didn't anticipate this kind of response. . . . We had 50,000 visitors last week. The enormous success of the show,'' he continues, ''has placed us in a position of sitting on a throne giving thumbs up or thumbs down - telling the people of America who is in or who is out in American art.

''They (protesters) look at the whole thing purely as history while we were looking for the best pictures. The staff was looking for quality and not at the ethnic background or color of the artist,'' the director says.

''They believe 'here goes (to Paris) the definitive exhibition of American art and we (black artists) are not in it.' I can sympathize. But we never intended the show to be the definitive, overall show of American painting.''

Robert C. Vose Jr., a fifth-generation specialist and dealer in American art, says ''at least 25 to 30 great painters - darn important ones - were left out of the show.''

He says the black artists should be included in an overall look at American painters of the time but not in such a small show.

''I think you'll find any student of painting would not rate any of those six artists in the top 20 American artists. They were able, but not great painters.''

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