Published: February 14, 2012
A forward-looking, gifted artist who used his training, intelligence, faith, discipline and perseverance to overcome enormous obstacles to become an internationally respected figure, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859‱937) occupies a special place in American art history. The first African American painter of stature on both sides of the Atlantic, a model for aspiring black American artists and a modern thinker who reinvigorated religious painting, Tanner stands tall among outstanding painters of his era.
Tanner’s traditionally perceived role in American art history has emphasized his influence on African American artists and as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance. He is often associated with black genre painting, although he created only two.
Actually, Tanner was a major international painter who overcame racial prejudice to succeed in applying fresh techniques to modern interpretations of religious themes. His compelling biblical works continue to resonate into the Twenty-First Century.
A fresh look at this artist’s remarkable career and oeuvre, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) through April 15. Curated by PAFA’s Anna Marley, the exhibition comprises more than 100 works, including paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, photographs and Tanner’s two known sculptures.
The exhibition, says Marley, “reveals the artist as a talented modern man whose training, intelligence and faith equipped him to surmount the difficult realities of his time and propelled him into a lifetime journey of personal and artistic discovery.”
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh into an educated and cultured African American family. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a second-generation freedman, civil rights activist, eminent clergyman and eventually bishop in the African Methodist Church. Tanner’s mother, an ex-slave, helped found one of America’s first societies for black women.
Young Tanner excelled at segregated public schools in Philadelphia, where his father edited the AME church’s newspaper, and yearned to be an artist at an early age.
His exposure to the work of such African American artists as Edward Bannister and Edmonia Lewis “made Tanner aware that being black and being an artist were not mutually exclusive,” Marley observes.
Starting at age 20, he studied under Thomas Eakins at PAFA, working first from plaster casts of classical statuary and then from live models. “Reared in a very religious and disciplined home&” says eminent art historian David C. Driskell, prompted young Tanner to “work hard to master painting in the academic tradition.”
Tanner’s early interests were in marine and animal painting, such as an affectionate depiction of Pomp, an old lion at the Philadelphia Zoo. Taking up the more elevated genre of history painting, he was constantly pushed by Eakins, who respected the young black artist, to continually improve and not to “compromise” in his art.
Persevering through the racist hostility of some white students, Tanner absorbed Eakins’s lessons in gritty realism and scientific observation of human and animal anatomy. Eakins’s moving portrait of a dignified, introspective Tanner in his late 30s is a treasure of the Hyde Collection
Moving to Atlanta, Ga., in 1889, Tanner created both precise and evocative oil and lively, colorful watercolor landscapes that attracted patrons who became lifelong supporters and financed the young artist’s trip to Paris in 1891.
Tanner took drawing lessons at the Académie Julian and created nocturnal cityscapes influenced by French Impressionism and American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Summers in Brittany resulted in light-filled, plein air landscapes and genre scenes of Breton peasants at work and play. The latter, large narratives, were submitted to the prestigious Paris Salon, and earned applause back in Philadelphia.
Back in the United States in the early 1890s, Tanner completed his two African American genre scenes, “The Banjo Lesson,” showing an old black man teaching a youngster how to play the instrument, and “The Thankful Poor,” in which an African American grandfather and grandson pray over their modest meal. Like his Breton peasant paintings, these moving canvases emphasize the dignity of the subjects, respect for working people, and, as Driskell puts it, conveyed “strong, positive statements about black family values.” Moreover, as Marley observes, Tanner’s pictures were “respectful, naturalistic depictions of African Americans that stood in sharp contrast to other, unfortunately more typical, caricatured images&,” like “racist images of minstrelsy that were rampant&n the late Nineteenth Century.”
Around this time, Tanner applied his Old Master palette to much-admired, affectionate portraits of his parents, and in one of his few surviving sculptures, created a forceful bust of his formidable father. In 1899, Tanner married a Swedish American, Jessie Macauley Olsson; they had a son, Jesse.
In 1896, Tanner’s Christian upbringing and genuine sentiments prompted him to take up religious themes infused with modernity, which dominated the remainder of his career. His first major success, “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” 1896, a dramatic work in brown and gold hues with monumental figures bathed in light that seems to emanate from the restored hero himself. A black man among the witnesses suggests the importance of Africans in Christianity. Lauded on both sides of the Atlantic and hailed as Tanner’s “masterpiece,” it was acquired by the French government and is today in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Between 1897 and 1912 Tanner visited Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Palestine †then known as the Orient †and added touches of Orientalism to his art. For years he created what art historian Adrienne L. Childs calls “sun-drenched views of architecture&⁛and] images of dark, shrouded figures&⁛utilizing Orientalist] painterly techniques.” She notes that Tanner was the first African American professional painter to travel to and depict North Africa, experiences that “resonated with” efforts of the New Negro movement in the United States to “position” the region among “cultural homelands for “Negro” Americans.
Tanner’s Holy Land observations also informed two notable works in the late 1890s, “The Annunciation,” with its brilliant shaft of light †representing the Archangel Gabriel †illuminating the heroine, and “Nicodemus,” a moonlit view of figures set against a Near Eastern backdrop. In the latter, illumination emerges from the body of the central figure, rather than from a conventional halo over his head.
Tanner’s “adoption of religious subjects allowed him to widen his gaze, enlarge his audience and increase the opportunity to exhibit his work in nonsegregated venues,” observes Bates College religion historian Marcus Bruce. They signaled a new approach to biblical art that was deeply personal, mystical and, as Marley puts it, infused “uniquely contemporary elements&nto age-old art-historical subjects&”
Tanner, by using light to illuminate divinity and delineate the architecture of the Holy Land, and by bringing his “own mystical and naturalist interpretations to traditional art-historical subjects †invigorated the genre and attracted considerable press and patronage as a result of&⁛his] originality.”
By this time internationally known, Tanner continued to create important religious paintings until World War I. He chose to remain abroad rather than returning to his homeland, he explained, because in France he was accepted simply as an artist. “Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there on terms of absolute social equality,” he said.
Perhaps inspired by Islamic tiles he had seen on his Near Eastern travels, Tanner incorporated blue-greens and purples into increasingly mystical images. Recent technical examinations of his techniques and materials, detailed in the catalog, reveal how he experimented with multiple layers of glazes in these mauve and blue-green tones that are associated with his mature religious paintings.
Standouts from this period include an evocative, moonlit scene, “The Disciples see Christ Walking on the Water,” an affectionate evocation of “Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures” and the almost ghostly figures bathed in light at sunrise in “The Three Marys.”
During visits to North Africa after 1910, Tanner, entranced by colorful houses, mosques, narrow streets, alleys and picturesque people, executed a series of streetscapes in Tangier and elsewhere. “Entrance to the Casbah,” 1912, offers a luminous, tranquil, plunging view of a high-walled entryway to the native section of a Moroccan city with a horse and local figures in the foreground. It is broadly brushed in subdued colors with few details.
Starting in 1900, Tanner spent more than 30 summers away from bustling Paris in tranquil Trepied, near Etaples on France’s northern coast. He painted nocturnal landscapes and genre views of the hard life of area fishermen, organized art exhibitions and led the local art colony.
The onset of World War I so traumatized Tanner that he was unable to work, paralyzed by the presence of soldiers and refugees, and uncertainty about what lay ahead. After the United States entered the conflict in 1917, the 58-year-old artist joined the American Red Cross and established a program that employed convalescing soldiers to raise fresh produce on vacant land around Neufchateau on the war’s eastern front.
Tanner’s grandniece, Dr Rae Alexander-Minter, recalled that “he had a great love of America” and was never an expatriate †always hoping “to return to a different America than the one he left. The Red Cross symbolized him giving to his country and to France at the same time.”
During the war, Tanner executed oils depicting soldiers in and around Red Cross canteens, including one in which a background light illuminates an African American soldier among the crowd.
Three of these paintings are now at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. Other canvases showed American troops in nocturnal scenes around Neufchateau, allowing the painter to utilize his favorite blue-green and purple palette to achieve dramatic night effects.
Life was difficult for Tanner after the end of the war. His beloved wife died in 1925, and the Great Depression caused financial problems. In response to the rise of Modernism, he did not experiment with abstraction, but instead tried different techniques and materials, such as mixing oil and tempera together, seeking to create new emotional effects in his canvases.
A series of bible scenes included lamps and other light sources and deft blues, greens and purples to dramatize such familiar subjects as “The Good Shepherd” (numerous versions), “Flight into Egypt,” “The Three Wise Men” and “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
As Marley observes, “While he used traditional techniques to begin his compositions, the final results were products of years of experimentation and thus a hybrid of modern technique and traditional subject matter.” “His aesthetic,” echoes Driskell, “was halfway between Modernism and French academic painting.”
Over the years, Tanner hosted and mentored a steady stream of African American artists †William Edouard Scott, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, James A. Porter, Hale Woodruff †sharing insights into the Parisian art scene and offering counsel on shaping their careers. “He formed an immediate and lasting bond with these visiting artists,” observes Driskell.
For these younger black artists, “the significance of Tanner’s artistic achievement was not the fame it brought him,” says historian Tyler Stovall, “but his blending of different techniques and artistic traditions in order to establish his own style&[Key] was Tanner’s lifelong resistance to being pigeonholed as a black artist instead of merely an artist.”
Leaders of the Harlem Renaissance urged Tanner to return to America to lead their cause, but he declined, feeling his mission was to continue creating art that reflected his Christian ideals. In 1923, the French government awarded him the prestigious Legion of Honor, a rare accolade for a foreigner, and in 1927 he was the first African American elected to membership in the National Academy of Design in the United States. He was a longtime member of the NAACP.
In the years since his death in France in 1937, Tanner’s reputation has continued to grow. He is admired for bucking the odds to become an international art star, for being America’s preeminent religious painter during the height of the genre’s popularity and as a result of studies for this exhibition, as a technical innovator who used modern painting techniques to create memorable canvases of enduring importance. This rewarding, insightful exhibition serves to broaden and deepen respect for Tanner, an iconic figure in American art history.
The catalog, edited by curator Marley, with essays by 14 scholars, is published by the University of California Press in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Academy. It sells for $65, hardcover.
The exhibition will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum (May 26⁓eptember 9) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (October 21⁊anuary 13).
The Pennsylvania Academy is at 118-128 North Broad Street. For information, 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org .
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