On first reflection, the title for the new exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), in Philadelphia, seems open to question. Was Henry Ossawa Tanner truly a “modern spirit?”
Were Tanner’s depictions of biblical themes and African-American family life among the dying flourishes of 19th century Academic art? Or was this immensely gifted artist a quiet revolutionary who integrated visionary insights into his evocations of sacred history and the natural world?
The answer to these questions can be found in Tanner’s works, notably Nicodemus, which he painted in 1899. In this incident from the New Testament (John 3:1-21), a member of the Pharisees named Nicodemus visited Jesus one night to question him about his teachings. Tanner, who loved to paint nocturnal scenes, brilliantly used subtle lighting effects to emphasize Jesus’ spirituality. The preparatory oil sketch showed the head of Jesus surrounded by a shining halo so bright that it functions more as an exterior light source than an emblem of holiness. Tanner wisely banished the halo in the completed work. Instead, light radiates from the illumined white square of Jesus’ tunic over his heart.
The eye of the viewer immediately focuses on this band of interior light across Jesus’ heart. But in a true master stroke, Tanner also painted two rectangles of a luminous amber hue in the right foreground. These are beams of light cast by an unseen lantern on the steps leading to the rooftop where Jesus and Nicodemus converse. Like sanctuary lights in a church, these bands of glowing color beckon the viewer to mount the steps and enter into this dialogue of faith.
Such levitating blocks of color would appear in major 20th century works of art: the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko. It is no coincidence that we see them strategically placed decades earlier in Nicodemus. Tanner was indeed a “modern spirit.”
This exhibition of the works of Henry Ossawa Tanner is the first major reappraisal of the great African-American painter in a generation. On display in the PAFA exhibit are over 100 of Tanner’s works, including twelve paintings never shown in a previous retrospective. Drawings, photographs, prints and the only two surviving sculptures created by Tanner are featured, along with his paintings. Tanner’s long, largely self-taught, career is documented in a timeline that skillfully correlates his life to to the “times” in which he lived.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859, the year of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Tanner’s father was Benjamin Tucker Tanner, an influential minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother, Sarah, had escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad.
In 1868, the Tanner family moved Philadelphia. One day, in 1872, Tanner and his father went for a walk in Fairmount Park, the sprawling municipal park which runs along the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The young Tanner saw a landscape painter at work, an observation that decided him on his life’s work. Tanner began studying at PAFA in 1879, continuing until 1885. This was the era of Thomas Eakins, the foremost painter in the United States and the guiding spirit of PAFA. Eakins mentored Tanner’s student work and later painted a portrait of him which is included in the exhibition.
Tanner could have asked for no better teacher than Eakins. But his work found few buyers in the United States and in 1891 he went to France to further his studies. Despite several extended visits back to the U.S., Tanner remained in France for the rest of his life.
The Tanner exhibition at PAFA traces Tanner’s life journey from Philadelphia to France and his later journeys to the Middle East and North Africa. Works reflecting his African-American roots and his strong family background include a magnificent portrait of his mother sitting in a darkened room, her face glowing from the blaze in an unseen fireplace. Painted in 1897, this work shows how attentively Tanner had studied Old Master works in the museums of Europe and the exceptional degree of his mastery of light and shadow.
Tanner’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother drew obvious inspiration from James Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. But Tanner was certainly not slavishly copying “Whistler’s Mother” when he painted his own. Whistler’s celebrated work, acquired in 1891 by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, inspired similar treatments by many artists during the late 19th century. Tanner’s skilled contrast of the dark, rich browns and golden light playing on the meditating face of his mother give this work a vitality all its own.
At Eakins’ suggestion, Tanner went to the Philadelphia Zoo to sketch and paint animals soon after he had begun studying art. The PAFA exhibition has a delightful oil painting from 1880 of people gawking at a stoical lion named Pomp. With this early work, Tanner showed a perceptive grasp of lighting effects that would be a defining characteristic of his work.
Tanner also sculpted a remarkable portrait of a “lion of God.” This was the patinated plaster bust of his father, now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. By the time the bust was created in 1894, Benjamin Tanner was a bishop of the AME Church and a major figure in the African-American community, not only in the U.S., but throughout Canada, the West Indies and Latin America. The bust exudes a sense of resolution and courage that was lacking in a more introspective painting of Bishop Tanner by his son, dating to 1897.
Bishop Tanner needed every scrap of fortitude he could get, as the civil liberties of African-Americans were under assault throughout the U.S. Even in Philadelphia, birthplace of the abolition movement, Black Americans struggled to maintain their basic rights. In 1871, the charasmatic leader of the city’s African-American community, Octavius Catto, was murdered in election-day violence when a white gang attacked a polling site. Though conditions improved for Philadelphia’s African-American population, the largest in the major cities of the U.S during the 1890’s, the doors to economic opportunity and critical acclaim for Tanner remained shut.
The door to success in France opened with amazing swiftness. In May 1897, Tanner scored a great triumph when his The Resurrection of Lazarus received a medal at the Paris Salon. The French Government purchased the work for the Musée du Luxembourg. The inclusion of The Resurrection of Lazarus in the PAFA exhibition marks the first time it has ever appeared outside of France.
Tanner’s The Resurrection of Lazarus was a resounding personal achievement and a vindication for the African-American community reeling from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding racial segregation. Ironically, Tanner had decided to concentrate on biblical paintings rather than African-American genre scenes like his now iconic The Banjo Lesson. This decision would later be criticized by Alain Leroy Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. But at the time, Tanner was applauded for proving that African-American artists could compete in the highest arena of cultural competition in Europe – and win.
Tanner’s career and his interest in depicting scenes from the Bible was assisted by the patronage of Lewis Rodman Wanamaker. The son of John Wanamaker, the pioneer of department store merchandising, Rodman Wanamaker was an astute business man and major patron of the arts and sciences. He later helped to develop the design and use of seaplanes and flying boats which played a vital role in aviation. Rodman Wanamaker, as president of the American Art Association of Paris, provided funds for Tanner to make two trips to Palestine and Egypt in order to gain first hand knowledge of what was then called the “Holy Land.” Tanner painted The Resurrection of Lazarus after he returned from the first of these excursions to the Middle East which he made in the spring of 1896. His research there contributed to the feel of historical authenticity that the painting imparted, which in turn greatly impressed the judges of the Paris Salon.
Tanner returned to the Middle East for a long six-month expedition in October 1898. He later visited Morocco in 1912, sketching and painting details of life in cities like Tangiers and also the spectacular landscape of the Atlas Mountains. These “study abroad” sojourns supplied him with a wealth of subject matter that he used for the rest of his life. Tanner was thus one of many great artists of his generation to feel the allure of the Middle East, Henri Matisse and Paul Klee being other notable visitors.
While fascinated by the Middle East, Tanner never subscribed to the sense of the exotic or the thinly-veiled thirst for sensuality that was a major component of the genre now referred to as Orientalism. Throughout the 19th century, many artists indulged in what was a patronizing counterpart to the colonial “scramble for empire.” They painted Morocco or Egypt in ways that buttressed a sense of European superiority or showed enticing displays of nudity. Tanner took a different approach, as can be seen in Entrance to the Casbah, 1912. He went on these expeditions to learn, to gain the true measure of the people, the countryside and the way of life in these ancient lands.
Tanner’s The Annunciation, painted in 1898, shows how his careful research informed his depictions of events from the Bible. Here, the Virgin Mary receives God’s message that she will give birth to Jesus. She sits, confounded by heaven’s command, in her cramped sleeping area, screened-off from battered, chipped masonry and a cold, cobble stone floor. In keeping with Tanner’s fascination with light, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary not as a winged, celestial messenger but as a luminous blaze of electrical current.
The dematerialized depiction of the angel in The Annunciation pointed in the direction that Tanner’s painting took in the later years of his career. Increasingly, he treated the human figure in his work in an impressionistic manner. In some cases, the scale of his human figures diminished to the point that Tanner’s landscapes took on an almost abstract quality. In the 1907 painting, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, Christ is reduced to a mere specter on the horizon. The disciples on the fishing boat appear, initially, to be floating on air. Not until the white-gold orb of the moon’s reflection in the left foreground is properly discerned can the composition of this innovative and inspirational work of art be truly appreciated.
Tanner was in fact a man of mystical temperament, as his son Jesse later affirmed. It was this profound spirituality that informed his work. In the increasingly secular and politically-charged atmosphere of the 20th century, many critics could not appreciate or accept his choice of subject matter. Yet, Tanner was never an “Exile for Art’s Sake” as one contemporary article described him. He served in the American Red Cross in France during World War I and his splendid 1917 portrait of Booker T. Washington shows that he was aware – and supported – the struggle for racial equality back home in the U.S.
Tanner deserves to be ranked with other great African-American cultural figures of the 20th century who excelled in artistic fields that had been dominated by Europeans or white Americans. Just as Paul Robeson created a sensation with his Shakespearean roles and Marian Anderson won acclaim with her classical music performances, so Tanner’s success as a religious painter showed that African-Americans could not – and would not – be denied the chance to demonstrate their abundant creative abilities.
Overall, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is a magnificent retrospective. There are several gaps, however, among the works on display at PAFA. These omissions speak more of the increasing difficulty of mounting art exhibits than to any failings of the staff at PAFA. The exhibition is due to travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, following its time at PAFA. By the time it finishes its run in Houston in January 2013, many of the paintings on display will have been away from their home museums or collections for an entire year. This is a major sacrifice which many museums or private owners are no longer able to make.
In the case of one important “no-show” Tanner painting, government red-tape is to blame.
Tanner’s 1885 landscape, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City is the work in question. Amazingly, this was the first painting by an African-American artist to enter the permanent collection of the White House. It was purchased in 1996 by the Clinton administration from Tanner’s grandniece, Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, for $100,000 from the White House Endowment Fund.
Unfortunately, when art works enter the White House collection there are legal restrictions preventing them from being loaned to other museums except the Smithsonian Institution or to Federal agencies like the National Park Service.
By way of compensation, PAFA is charting the way that Tanner influenced and inspired other African-American artists in a related exhibition, After Tanner: African American Artists Since 1940. Works on display in this exhibit include paintings by William H. Johnson and Hale Woodruff, who were mentored by Tanner during the 1920’s, and later artists such as Reginald Gammon and Romare Bearden.
If Tanner’s career confounded expectations during his lifetime, it was because he refused to be confined or relegated to any life path but the one he chose for himself. There is a great lesson to be learned in his works and from his words.
“My efforts have been to not only put the biblical incident in the original setting,” Tanner wrote in 1924, “…but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.”
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit appears at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 North Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19102 (January 28 -April 15, 2012).
The exhibition travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH, 45202 (May 26 – September 9, 2012) and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77005 (October 21, 2012 – January 13, 2013)