Henry Ossawa Tanner is a world-famous "Negro" artist almost unknown in his native America. I'm publishing this story in acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Day, 2010.
Why isn't Henry Ossawa Tanner a household name? He is a major American artist with an international reputation. Is he relatively unknown here because he is an African American? He has been acclaimed among black leaders including Booker T. Washington, Edward Bannister, and W.E.B. DuBois. Tanner's solid accomplishments in painting and his illustrious family history, together with their relative exclusion from American arts and letters, make a strong argument for multiculturalism - in this case the inclusion of non-white-male artists in the canons of our books and universities.
A major retrospective of Tanner's work was on view at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum in early 1992. The exhibition had already appeared in the major museums of Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta. Most of us still don't know who Tanner is or what we can learn from him.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 and grew up in Philadelphia. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he studied with Thomas Eakins. By 1887 he had exhibited frequently in Philadelphia galleries, at the Pennsylvania Academy and at the National Academy of Design in New York. He went to Paris in 1891 and by 1894 his painting, "The Banjo Lesson," had been accepted in the prestigious Paris Salon. Every year until 1914 Tanner had a selection in the Salon show. In 1897 "The Resurrection of Lazarus" was purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg.
Tanner resided primarily in France but spent periods of time in the United States, exhibiting frequently in Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. In 1908 Tanner had his first solo exhibition in New York, and in 1913 he had a solo show at Knoedler's, a gallery that remains well-known to this day. By 1923 he was awarded Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government. He continued to have major exhibits throughout the United States. He enjoyed an international reputation as an American painter, along with Whistler, Mary Cassatt and other Americans who painted abroad. We know the others and we now have an opportunity to know Tanner.
Looking at Tanner's works at the de Young quickly dispelled the traditionalist's argument, barely acceptable in the latter 20th century, that Tanner is not an important artist and that his relative anonymity has nothing to do with his race. The de Young galleries were filled with over ninety paintings and numerous drawings. A quick walk through all the rooms revealed a strong, consistent artistic vision supported by the self-confidence and skill of the artist as painter. At various times Tanner used marine, animal, landscape, portrait, genre, Near Eastern (Oriental) and Biblical themes. Numerous examples of each kind of painting verify the artist's skill regardless of his subject matter.
From his earliest works, Tanner demonstrates the mastery of color, brush stroke, composition and light that belong to a true painter. In this exhibition there were no poorly painted pictures. Tanner's serene and elevating inner vision binds the ninety paintings together. His large canvases invite you to reflect calmly and deeply on the meaning of life as seen through the eyes of a lion, an old black man, a Jew, sometimes of a Biblical character. His color range and compositions are complete. There are no holes, no unfinished corners, no unresolved surfaces, that allow your attention to be diverted and wander out of the painting. To enter into one of Tanner's paintings is to see a reflection of a whole, meaningful, spiritually imbued universe.
"Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds" Henry Ossawa Tanner
Tanner's religious Biblical paintings form the largest group in the show. Perhaps it is the strange "Tanner Blue" palette that makes them stand apart from the rest of Tanner's work and from that of other artists. Here again a traditionalist might dismiss these paintings as irrelevant and derivative for their period (1897-19097) compared to Tanner's contemporaries - the Impresisonists, Post-Impressionists and emerging Fauves.
Tanner is a unique painter in the manner of Odilon Redon or Gustave Moreau who also painted in the late 19th century. When Tanner's painterly gifts are wedded to Biblical subjects, the effect of looking at one of these bluish turquoise misty paintings is to feel a suggestion, an atmosphere, a mystery, an imaginative place of departure. These are almost symbolist paintings not limited to the subtle often moonlit view of barely discernible Biblical characters. One can look at the figures and their surroundings and go on to imagine a whole world, a whole story, even a whole religion. Tanner fulfills one of the potentials of great painting - to take the viewer outside of him or herself into a larger, more universal world.
If the Biblical pictures attract attention first, then the accomplishments of the other paintings are that much more amazing. Tanner's marine pictures, like "Fishermen at Sea" (1913-14), a powerful view down into a boat from above, and "The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water" (1907), often come close to the skill of Winslow Homer for evoking the sublime majesty of the ocean. Tanner's ability to render the ocean is not an accidental accomplishment. He often went to the Jersey shore and later the Brittany coast in France. Why was he excluded from the 1983 Boston show of Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910 which included similar marine paintings? Once again, is it simply because the curators were unfamiliar with the scope and stature of this African American artist? Both Tanner and Bannister were excluded from another major exhibition in Detroit of American Arts between 1876 and 1983.
Tanner's landscapes rank right up there with Corot, including his view of the Atlantic City Dunes, the North Carolina Mountains, and a picture of Georgia woods with the ocean beyond. Each of these pictures has a mystery all its own. The Atlantic City dunes barely exist in people's memories today but Tanner's picture brings back all the romance and beauty of what must have existed in that early resort. Tanner also gives us the spiritual mystery of the North Carolina mountains rather than an egocentric view of the landscape.
Tanner's portraits most clearly demonstrate his equality with the great painters of his era. "Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell" and "Two Disciples at the Tomb" could hang proudly next to a Sargeant or a Manet. Once again, we have to ask why Tanner is overlooked in spite of such powerfully painted faces as Hartzell's or the Disciples'? Tanner's portrait of Booker T. Washington, which should be a standard image in our visual vocabulary, brings alive a great man, a great African American, and reveals the skill of the painter in rendering a man's soul in the image of his face.
"Half Length Study of a Negro Man," a charcoal and pencil drawing, looks up at a Negro bearded man from just below the pelvic bone. Tanner's confidence, skill, subtle powers of observation and willingness to deal with his subject's inner life are all revealed in this intimate drawing. Unobscured by the passion of color and paint, Tanner's vision and bonding with his subject reach us directly in this simple yet extraordinary drawing.
Much of the literature around this exhibition (the plaques in the museum, the catalog essays, the brochures) talk about Tanner's genre paintings, meaning his images of African Americans going about domestic tasks like the "Old Man and Boy at Dinner," or the famous "The Banjo Lesson." Although we would like to see these pictures as typical of Tanner's whole body of work, they are only a small part of it. We cannot take the part for the whole without missing many great works of art. Breadth and consistency make Tanner a great painter.
Like other white adults, for years I have made the effort to fill in the gaps of my vision of colored people, Negroes, Blacks and/or African Americans. I was raised in Philadelphia which has been racially polarized for generations. Bit by bit I learn to piece together the whole life of African Americans - joys, hopes, pains, homes, vacations, families, dinners. We were raised to see disembodied servants or people on street corners. No mention was ever made of the rest of these people's lives.
And the Tanner family story contains a wealth of new material. It is well-documented in the exhibition catalog, particularly in an essay by his grand-niece, Rae Alexander-Minter. This story, which should be as well-known to Americans as that of John Singer Sargeant or Winslow Homer, is partially revealed while viewing the exhibition and reading the accompanying materials.
Henry Tanner's father, Benjamin, a Pittsburgh native whose family dates back to the 18th century, studied Greek and Latin at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, PA. In 1888 Benjamin Tanner became a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, according to W.E.B. Du Bois, was "the greatest Negro organization in the world." Tanner's district included Canada, the West Indies, British Guiana and South America.
The elder Tanner founded schools and missions, carried on a lifelong study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, published a major book on the schism of the black and white Methodist churches and became a brilliant eccesliastical scholar. His home in Philadelphia became "the centre of the black intellectual community in Philadelphia." He published the A.M.E. Church Review, on the of the first church magazines published by blacks for a national audience.
His oldest daughter Halle graduated from Women's Medical College in Philadelphia (founded because the other medical schools would not train females) and went to work for Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. She became the first woman doctor ever admitted to practice medicine in Alabama. Henry Tanner's brother-in-law, Aaron Mossell, was the first black person to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Henry's niece was the second black woman in America to receive a Ph.D., and the first in economics. She was also the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first to pass the bar and practice in the state. Another of Henry's sisters married Lewis B. Moore, the first black to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Tanner himself was often grouped with outstanding black leaders and was considered a success in his own lifetime. He mostly lived in France from 1891 on and married a white woman, but he never ignored his Negro identity. "He often opened his home and studio to black American artists, such as William Henry Johnson, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Laura Wheeler Waring, Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff, all of whom sought his advice and counsel when in Paris. While reading a passel of his letters, I discovered that my granduncle never considered himself an expatriate; in fact he eschewed the word. He believed he did not have the luxury of being an expatriate, a privilege, as James Baldwin would suggest years later, accorded only to white Americans." (Rae Alexander-Minter.)
His son, Jesse O. Tanner, explains his father's importance in Alexander-Minter's essay: "My father always worked very hard on his pictures and they were painted very slowly. If you study them, you keep discovering new things about them - a new form is revealed, a new star seems to shine, a new shadow stretches out - in a word, his pictures are very much alive. A Tanner can do more than give you enjoyment, it can come to your rescue, it can reaffirm your confidence in man and his destiny, it can help you surmount your difficulties or console you in distress."
The Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibition and the accompanying catalog notes was a revelation to me in 1992 when I first arrived in San Francisco. Today the Internet offers us a complete education in the rich, moving, and sublime world created by African American artists. It is our obligation to learn about this world.
©1994 Sherry Miller.