Evan Sweren: Loved and lost

By
Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

Peel away the brick, take away the railings and there’s a story well worth sharing.

Brown has owned 93 Benevolent St., the former home of Edward Mitchell Bannister, the preeminent black painter of the 19th century, since 1986. This summer, as a result of an op-ed I wrote in The Herald in February along with meetings I have held with administrators over the past few months, Brown will finally begin renovating the property. It is my hope that the final use of the house will honor the life and legacy of one of New England’s most beloved painters.

But what about his paintings? In particular, what about “Under the Oaks”?

In the foreground there’s a stream. In the background there are sheep. A shepherd sits beneath the trees.

“Under the Oaks,” Bannister’s award-winning landscape from 1876, is widely recognized as the work that launched his career from local to national attention. It was monumental — 48” x 78”. Politically intriguing, the painting created a stir in Philadelphia. And it cost more than a nominal fee — roughly $30,000 in 2015 USD. Yet today, its whereabouts are unknown. 

So I started looking. And at first, the search was less about finding the painting and more of a way of escaping, burrowing into a different era. Identify obscure publication, hunt it down, sleep restlessly, and hope the facts match up and lead to another clue. Carry that invisible totem from city to city.

Walking around College Hill, I was drawn to the Bannister House on Benevolent Street just as many other college students and Providence residents surely have been. It is a wood house veneered in brick that enchants like a Grimm tale, looming amidst the cedars and breaking from the rhythm of colonial-style buildings.

Eventually, I turned up an article in the Providence Journal about another Brown graduate fascinated by Bannister. In a picture I held in the Providence Public Library, Ed Shein ’66 looked back at me with a Walt Whitman stare.

In the 1970s, Shein had been working as a stockbroker in Boston before he walked into a tinker shop on Providence’s Broad Street, and his life changed. “Every day,” he said in the 1978 Providence Sunday Journal feature, “I would go to the library and do research.”

Shein had come across a painting of Bannister’s — ratted, dirty, torn — for the discount price of $500. He would go on to buy more than 140 of Bannister’s oil paintings and more than 150 of his watercolors and sketches, donating all of them to what is now the National Museum of African Art and part of the Smithsonian Institution. He is single-handedly responsible for protecting and compiling most of the known works in Bannister’s oeuvre.

And Bill Van Siclen ’76, the author of the Shein article and a Brown graduate, had his Bannister connection; he had lived in 93 Benevolent St. as a student. Soon, I too will join their ranks — just another Brown alum fascinated by Bannister and his convoluted legacy.

In a car with a friend from Providence to New York City, I watched the sunset and he puffed a Montecristo. We were talking of furniture, food and women. He had one year of an MFA at RISD ahead of him and 20 years in the restoration business well in his past. “Guileless desire,” he said as if in judgment. The principle of wanting without justifying, wishing without rationalizing, acting without explaining the why.

There’s the guy from New Jersey I talked with on the phone. There’s the 1914 auction catalog he sent me in which a person, ears trained to the cries of the auctioneer, had penciled sale prices in the margins — a book that had been in the exact same room as Bannister’s lost work. There are the countless librarians and professors who’ve helped me along the way. There are my friends who think I’m crazy and my family who knows they are right. And then there is the paper trail that eventually runs cold.

I do not know where Bannister’s “Under the Oaks” wound up. If this were a Dan Brown novel, it would be upstairs in my attic, but I’ve looked, and it’s not there.

I’m trying on guileless desire. It’s not something I’ve been taught. It’s not about results. It’s about doing. And after countless newspapers read, auction catalogs scanned and emails exchanged with librarians across the states, I’m still floating around in 1936.

Evan Sweren is an English concentrator and a former Herald opinions editor.