Providence’s tightly-knit community of artists and collectors created the Providence Art Club to congregate, create, and display art. It is the second oldest art club in the country after the Salmagundi Club in New York City. The westernmost of the club’s four buildings is the Fleur-de-Lys Studio (1885), built by Sydney Burleigh as workspace for himself and fellow club artists. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the studio is a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts architecture with finely rendered detail. On the street level corner is inscribed the phrase “Fair among the Fairest.” Not everybody appreciated this building; H.P. Lovecraft found it so revolting that he set his horror story “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) there.
Among the founders of the Providence Art Club was Edward Mitchell Bannister, a celebrated African American landscape painter. Bannister’s work Under The Oaks earned him first prize at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, although he had to overcome prevalent racist attitudes. Bannister discovered from a newspaper that he had won the prize, and when he arrived at the gallery to claim it, the clerk demanded to know “what it was to [him].” Bannister later wrote: “In an instant, my blood was up: the looks that passed between him and others in the room were unmistakable. I was not an artist to them, simply an inquisitive colored man; controlling myself, I said deliberately, ‘I am interested in the report that Under The Oaks has received; I painted the picture.’ An explosion could not have made a more marked impression. Without hesitation he apologized, and soon everyone in the room was bowing and scraping to me.”
Bannister’s wife, Christiana Bannister, is historically significant in her own right. An entrepreneur and self-proclaimed “hair doctress,” Bannister ran successful hair salons in Boston and downtown Providence which allowed her husband to pursue his art career.