THE newspaper boy hawking papers on street corners was once ubiquitous in the commercial areas of cities and towns. He still persists, joined by newspaper girls, mostly making home deliveries on bicycles or driven in parental automobiles. But the inroads made by radio and television into the newspaper industry have affected him, too. The entrepreneurial zeal of those boys has been duly noted, but they were also a link in the development of American culture, the literacy of the people, and our interest in news beyond the borders of our own small community concerns. Many Americans could echo the recent recollection of journalist Carl T. Rowan, former United States ambassador to Finland and director of the United States Information Agency: ``My family, like so many others during the Depression, couldn't afford to subscribe to a newspaper. [My teacher] knew we didn't even own a radio. Still, she prodded me to `look out for your future and find some way to keep up with what's going on in the world.' So I became a delivery boy for the Chattanooga Times. I rarely made a dollar a week, but I got to read a newspaper every day.''
The youngster in this painting, his skin reddened by the evening sun, is an appealing figure with his cap covering his curly black hair, a vivid red neckerchief knotted under the collar of his crisp, white shirt and flowing over his well-worn jacket. As he stands against a granite-colored building wall, his eyes are alert to pick out a customer in the homeward crowd, and perhaps he chants one of the newspaper boy's cries, ``Paper! Evening paper! Get your evening paper here!'' His left hand is in his pocket fingering the pennies that will speedily make the change to complete his sale. An art historian who wrote of this gesture, ``The boy's hand awkwardly stuffed in his pocket contrasts with the sensitive handling of his expression,'' probably was not familiar with the sight of a street newsboy in action. But the painting is a beautifully sensitive work. One wonders why one cannot readily think of other paintings of the subject, and the answer may lie in the common disregard for urban scenes held by American artists and poets of the 19th century. Indeed, the subject and the free, loose brushwork suggest a painting executed during the first quarter of the 20th century rather than one done four years after the end of the Civil War.
It must be said that the artist, Edward Mitchell Bannister, was really no exception to the general rule, as he was primarily a landscapist, much influenced by the French Barbizon school, which included Corot, Millet, and Daubigny, among others. Seven years after his ``Newspaper Boy'' was painted, a poetic pastoral scene by him was awarded one of the first-prize medals at the landmark Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, a huge and lavish demonstration of America's creativity within a survey of the world's arts, sciences, and social achievements. It was this exposition that stimulated the establishment of cultural institutions throughout the land. Bannister, then living and painting in Providence, R.I., was among the artists who, in response to that impetus, founded the first group there that aimed at the development of a means to study art as well as to exhibit members' works.
The medal his ``Under the Oaks'' received enhanced his prestige and painting career in Rhode Island, the more so as he was the only New England artist so honored. As the following quotation from the New York Herald in 1867 indicates, however, his path had its thorns. The newspaper declared: ``The Negro seems to have an appreciation of art while being manifestly unable to produce it.'' When the officials who had awarded him a first prize under the exposition's slogan, ``The Best that We Can Do,'' became aware of Bannister's race, it is said that efforts -- which happily failed -- were made to revoke it.
Accounts of his life are sketchy. He was born in New Brunswick, Canada. His father had come from Barbados. His mother was a Canadian, widowed when he was two years old. She encouraged her son's love for drawing. After her passing, he emigrated to Boston, where he seems to have held odd jobs, learned to make photographic solar prints, and become a barber while presumably pursuing his painting when he could.
He married an unusually enterprising woman whose forebears included Narragansett Indians. She had established more than one fashionable hair-dressing salon in Boston. His portrait of Christiana Carteau Bannister reveals an interesting-looking, beautiful woman with a firm chin. Socially concerned, she lobbied for equal pay for black soldiers during the Civil War and organized a Soldiers Relief Fair. After the couple had moved to Providence, she founded what is now known in her honor as the Bannister Nursing Care Center.
Thanks in large measure to his wife's thriving beauty salons, Bannister was able to further his art training at the Lowell Institute and to develop a successful painting career. In an essay written in 1886, he expressed these thoughts on the role of the artist: ``He becomes an interpreter of the infinite, subtle qualities of the spiritual idea centering in all created things, expounding for us the laws of beauty, and so far as finite mind and executive ability can, revealing to us glimpses of the absolute idea of perfect harmony.''
His landscapes with their poetic evocations of luminosity and tranquillity, his figure paintings with their compassionate respect for the subjects, all demonstrate how sincerely he strove to interpret the infinite, perfect harmony. A deeply religious man, he wrote in a letter to a friend, ``All that I would do I cannot -- that is, all I could say in art -- simply from lack of training, but with God's help I hope to be able to deliver the message he entrusted to me.''
The message the ``Newspaper Boy'' brings us is not one of sentimental nostalgia but of the buoyant cheerfulness, confidence, and vigor that youth at its best brings to its tasks, as well as of the implicit, serene joy that all humankind can experience in its daily interactions.