A New York Gallery Unearths Rare Works By Historic African-American Artists
The rain lies dabbled on the grass, the mute stars watch the lea
The rocking winds as they slowly pass sing to the restless sea....
On such a night as this, O God, we pleading turn to thee
Shield thou our land, our home, our all, do thou our leader be.
This little-known Civil War-era ballad, On Such a Night as This (1863), shares a title with a new group show at ACA Galleries in New York. And while the gallerists haven’t claimed this specific inspiration, the song’s lyrics are relevant to the show’s celebration of African-American artistic tradition from the 19th century to today.
Since their founding in 1932, ACA Galleries have been promoting African-American artists. Their first solo exhibition, in 1946, featured Charles White (1918–79), a painter renowned for his powerful depictions of race relations and the daily experiences of black Americans. One of the works from that show, a rare portrait entitled Mater Dolorosa (1946), is again on view in the current exhibition.
Also featured are several paintings by landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901), the first African-American artist to receive a national award when he took first prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and key works by the still-life painter Charles Ethan Porter (circa 1847–1923). Like Bannister, Porter was a pioneer. He was one of the first African-American artists of his time to work full-time as an artist, and one of the first to exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York.
Displaying the vibrant and often didactic works of these historic artists—see Lois Mailou Jones’s Howard University Students (1948), Romare Bearden’s raucous On Such a Night as This (1975), and Emma Amos’s Models (1995)—represents a full-circle moment for ACA Galleries. It’s a reminder of where the galleries have been, on the forefront of representing talented contemporary artists, regardless of race or ethnicity, and where they’re headed. As racial tension continues to build in New York and in the country at large, that future seems more important than ever.
“On Such a Night as This” is on view at ACA Galleries, New York, Nov. 10–Dec. 22, 2016.