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Tanner, Henry Ossawa 1859-1937

Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859-1937

Painter, photographer

At a Glance

Tanners Black Genre Period

Traveled to Europe

Biblical Themes Period

Marriage and Family Life

Visited North Africa and Palestine

Sources

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Henry Ossawa Tanner was highly regarded in Europe and America as the foremost African-American painter of the day. In 1991, nearly a century later, a major retrospective containing more than 100 paintings, drawings, photo graphs, and memorabilia was sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Shown in four major American museums, the exhibit served to refocus attention on this expatriate American artist who spent most of his adult life in France.

Born in Pittsburgh on June 21, 1859, Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first child of Benjamin Tucker Tanner and Sarah Miller Tanner. His middle name, Ossawa, stems from Osawatomie, Kansas, where the abolitionist John Brown murdered five slavery sympathizers in 1856. Although born in Pittsburgh, he grew up in Philadelphia, where his parents moved in 1866 when his father was assigned to the Bethel Church there. The Tanner family would grow to include seven children.

Tanners parents were cultured and educated, and they owned property. His father was born into a family that had been free for several generations. Benjamin Tucker Tanner attended Avery College and Western Theological Seminary, both located in Pennsylvania. He was a minister and later a prominent bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Tanners mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, was the granddaughter of a white plantation owner. She was born in Winchester, Virginia; and although born into slavery, Sarah was sent north on the Underground Railroad by her parents and raised in freedom. Sadly, she never saw her parents again. Henry Tanner would paint portraits of both his parents in 1897. His mothers portrait was done in a style similar to that used by the American artist James Whistler for his mothers portrait.

Only a handful of African-American artists preceded Tanner, including Joshua Johnston (active 1796-c. 1824), a Maryland portrait painter; Robert Duncanson (1817-1872), a Cincinnati landscape painter; Edward Bannister (1828-1901) of Providence, Rhode Island; and Edmonia Lewis (1845-c. 1890), a noted sculptor. While Tanner devoted most of his paintings to biblical subjects, he also created some notable black genre paintings, such as The Banjo Lesson (1893) and The Thankful Poor (1894). Interestingly, and disappointingly for some critics, Tanner

At a Glance

Born June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, PA; died May 25, 1937, in Paris, France; buried in Sceaux; son of Benjamin (a minister) and Sarah (Miller) Tanner; married Jessie Macauley Olssen (a musician), December 14, 1899; children: Jesse Ossawa (son; b. 1903). Education: Attended Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, beginning in 1880.

Artist, painter. Tanners work is generally divided into two major periods, his black genre period (up until about 1895), which addressed African-American themes, particularly teaching themes, and his biblical themes period, which dominated the rest of his professional life (except during the time he served with the American Red Cross in France during World War I and concentrated on topical subjects). First major exhibition in the United States took place in 1969.

devoted his energies to black genre paintings for only a couple of years before abandoning the genre in 1895. During this brief period he was able to produce paintings that one commentator praised as dignified images of his race in everyday settings.

By the 1890s, images of blacks painted by white artists like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Thomas Hovenden were not uncommon. Tanner, however, accepted the new challenge of correcting their misconceptions and stereotypes, something previous African-American artists had not done. Tanner had personal contact in Philadelphia with Eakins, his teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Hovenden, who worked in Philadelphia. Eakins was a realistic painter who approached his art with scientific precision. He depicted African Americans as individuals, not as caricatures. Eakins, who was an exceptional role model for Tanner, showed that African Americans could be represented with dignity.

Hovenden also influenced Tanner, giving him, as one commentator wrote, a comprehension of and sympathy with the broader and deeper things of life and art. Hovenden was born in Ireland and came to the United States at the age of 23. His house was used for abolitionist meetings and as a station on the Underground Railroad. He developed a deep personal concern for the black cause and produced paintings of black subjects far superior to any other American artist of the time.

Hovendens The Last Moments of John Brown is typical of the paintings that influenced Tanner.

Tanners Black Genre Period

Hovendens Ise So Happy, which depicts an older black banjo player, is likely to have inspired Tanners The Banjo Lesson. Tanner painted The Banjo Lesson in Philadelphia while he was recovering from a bout with typhoid fever that he had contracted in France. It was during this convalescence that Tanner decided to address African-American themes in his paintings. He wrote in his third-person autobiography, The Story of an Artists Life, which appeared in 1909 in The World at Work, Since his [i.e., Tanners] return from Europe he has painted many Negro subjects. He feels drawn to such subjects on account of the newness of the field and because of a desire to represent the serious and pathetic side of life among them, and it is his thought that other things being equal, he who has most sympathy with the subject will obtain the best results.

The Banjo Lesson, as well as several other of Tanners paintings, was also influenced by a French tradition established by Jean-Francois Millet, whose studies of everyday peasant life included several with teaching themes, such as The Knitting Lesson (1854), The Reading Lesson (1860), and The Sewing Lesson (1874). Art history professor Maurice Frank Woods praised The Banjo Lesson in American Visions by writing, Tanner skillfully and sympathetically captured a tender exchange between the wisdom of age and the innocence of youth in the form of an elderly man instructing a boy on how to play the banjo. The painting was purchased in 1894 by the Hampton Institute after being shown at Earles Gallery in Philadelphia.

Tanners affinity for lesson paintings, which typically show an older person passing along a tradition of skill or knowledge to a younger individual, also revealed itself in such works as The Young Sabot Maker, which was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1895. While not strictly speaking a lesson, the painting shows a youth making wooden shoes while an older man, probably his father and teacher, looks on with pride in the background. The later biblical paintings for which his wife and son posed, Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures (1910) and Christ Learning to Read (1910-1914), also embody this theme.

Tanner painted The Thankful Poor in 1894 before abandoning his black genre paintings. It is based on a similar painting called Le repas en famille, painted in 1891 by Elizabeth Nourse, a Cincinnati-born painter who also studied in France at the Academie Julien. Tanner had a chance to view the painting when it was exhibited at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in 1893. According to Professor Woods, The message is the same in both paintings. Despite their humble surroundings and meager meals, these two groups of people have found spiritual sustenance in their lives of struggle. Both pictures quietly reassure the viewer that the souls of the downtrodden are perhaps the purest and their faith in God the strongest. Lost for many years, The Thankful Poor was discovered in 1970 by the headmaster at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. It was exhibited for eleven years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and then sold in 1981 to actor Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, for $250,000.

Henry Ossawa Tanner decided he wanted to be a painter around the age of 12, when he saw a landscape painter at work in Philadelphias Fairmount Park. It set me on fire, he wrote. His mother loaned him 15 cents to buy paints and brushes. From this time forward, I was all aglow with enthusiasm, working spare times between school hours. Tanner started out to be a marine painter, painting various seascapes, harbor scenes, and ships in storms before being accepted at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1880. Tanner was also interested in painting animals and made paintings and clay models of the animals at the Philadelphia Zoo. Around 1880, he painted Pomp at the Zoo, showing well-dressed townspeople viewing a caged animal. He also painted horses, dogs, lions, deer, and other animals.

At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Tanner was taught by the well-known realist, Thomas Eakins, who was professor of drawing and painting. A charismatic and headstrong teacher, Eakins instructed Tanner how to render the human form, manipulate light and shadow to express a mood, and probe the depths of his subject. In 1902, Eakins would pay tribute to his former pupil by painting his portrait. By that time, Tanner had become the more acclaimed artist of the two.

Tanner tried to raise money for a trip to Europe by selling paintings and photographs in Philadelphia and doing magazine illustrations, but he realized few sales and received little financial support from his family. In 1888, he went to Atlanta, then known as a major center for black education. He opened a photography studio, hoping the well-educated black community would support him. However, he soon closed the shop and took a teaching position at Clark University. He spent the summer of 1889 photographing and painting mountainous landscapes in North Carolinas Highlands.

Traveled to Europe

In 1890, Tanner raised money for his European voyage through an exhibit of his works in Cincinnati that was organized by Bishop Joseph Hartzell of the Methodist Episcopal Church. When no one appeared to buy the paintings, Hartzell purchased the entire exhibit as a sign of support. In 1902, Tanner would paint a large portrait of Bishop Hartzell in tribute to his earliest patron. On January 4, 1891, Tanner sailed from New York for Europe. He arrived in Paris via Liverpool and London and enrolled in the Academie Julien. He spent his first summers in the countryside, painting the landscape and its people. After a summer at Port-Aven, he painted his first entry into the Salon. Although not accepted, The Bagpipe Lesson (1892-93) is a well-executed painting of Breton peasants. Although peasants were a traditional French subject, bagpipes were not; and Tanner also introduced an uncharacteristic element of humor into this painting.

Tanner became ill during his second year in France, contracting typhoid fever. He returned to Philadelphia for two years to recuperate and convalesce. It was during this period that he began to address black themes in his paintings. In the summer of 1893, he delivered a paper on The American Negro in Art before the Worlds Congress on Africa, held in Chicago in conjunction with the Worlds Columbian Exposition. Although the text has been lost, Tanner preserved his views on black genre paintings in his autobiographical sketch published in The World at Work (1909). When Tanner returned to Paris in 1894 after finishing The Thankful Poor, he worked hard to get his work accepted by the prestigious Salon of Paris. He would never return to the theme of African-American genre paintings.

Biblical Themes Period

After producing The Young Sabot Maker for the Salon exhibition of 1895, Tanner turned to biblical themes in his work. Daniel in the Lions Den received an honorable mention from the Salon in 1896; and Tanner triumphed at the 1897 Salon exhibition when The Raising of Lazarus was awarded a medal there. The painting was later purchased by the French government for the Luxembourg Gallery, where the works of living artists were displayed. Tanner thus joined the exclusive company of John Singer Sargent and James A. McNeil Whistler, the only other American artists whose works had also been purchased by the French government. Today, The Raising of Lazarus is on exhibit at the Musee dOrsay.

According to James K. Kettlewell, curator of the Hyde Collection, Religious themes were for Tanner, like Rembrandt, very personal modes of expression. Perhaps his interest in religious paintings stemmed from his upbringing in the church (his father was a prominent bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and his own spiritual beliefs. Tanner clearly was a religious man who believed in the biblical stories he depicted. He may have believed the biblical myths he painted could illustrate the struggles and hopes of his fellow black Americans. Some commentators, including the artists own son, have referred to the poetic mysticism of Tanners biblical paintings.

In 1897 and 1898, Tanner traveled to Palestine, Egypt, and the Holy Land. He entered another major biblical work, The Annunciation (1898) in the 1898 Salon. Painted after his trip to Palestine, the painting introduced textiles, ceramics, and white-washed, stone-floored architecture that Tanner would use in his later interior scenes of biblical subjects. The Annunciation became the first of Tanners works to be purchased for an American museum; it was acquired in 1899 by the W.P. Wilstach Collection for display in the Pennsylvania Museum (now Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Marriage and Family Life

Tanner met his wife, Jessie Macauley Olssen (1873-1925) in the summer of 1898 at Barbizon and later in Paris. Of Swedish descent, she was raised in San Francisco, where her father was an electrician in the shipbuilding industry. She was a gifted musician and moved to France to study voice. She married Henry in London on December 14, 1899, and settled in Paris. Jessie had posed for The Annunciation (1898) and would serve as a model for many of Henrys paintings, including The Three Marys (1910). Their only child, Jessie Ossawa Tanner, was born September 25, 1903, in New York city during a stay in the United States.

In 1899, Tanner painted Flight into Egypt, the first of more than 15 versions he would paint on this theme. Other paintings reflecting his trips to the Holy Land include A View in Palestine (1898-99) and Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (1899), which was signed by Tanner in Jerusalem. Following a two-year stay in the United States (1902-1904), during which his son Jesse Ossawa Tanner was born, Tanner returned to France and continued to paint biblical scenes. A favorite theme appeared in The Good Shepherd (1902-1903), a metaphor illustrating the relationship between God and man. In 1906, The Two Disciples at the Tomb was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago. That same year, the French government purchased Tanners The Disciples at Emmaus.

Tanners early interest in marine painting manifested itself in some of his mature biblical work, including The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (c.1907) and Christ and His Disciples on the Sea of Galilee (c.1910). The 1991 retrospective also featured the first public showing of Tanners Fishermen at Sea (c.1913-14). This boldly composed and freely painted work was discovered underneath another painting when the first canvas was removed for conservation. It shows a dramatic view from above of a fishing boat tossed about in a fairly rough sea.

Visited North Africa and Palestine

Tanner traveled to Algeria and Morocco in 1908 and the years prior to World War I. His trips there and to Palestine helped him capture the historical essence of his biblical subjects. While in Morocco and Algeria he painted in the Orientalist tradition, popular with French artists since Napoleons conquest of North Africa. Tanner and other artists were attracted by the exotic nature of Islamic countries in the Mediterranean region. Tanner painted street scenes in Tangier and the Casbah.

Tanners painting activities were interrupted in 1914 by the start of World War I. He was profoundly depressed by the war and did very few paintings until the war was over. Tanner served with the American Red Cross in France from the time the United States entered the war in 1917 until 1919. While serving, he proposed a therapy program in which convalescing patients would grow vegetables on vacant land around hospitals and base depots. The program was very successful.

After the wars end in November of 1918, Tanner returned to painting. He received permission to make sketches in the restricted war zone of Neufchateau, where he was stationed. His permit limited him to painting Red Cross activities, and his work was reviewed by censors. At the end of the war, Tanner presented three large works to the American Red Cross, including American Red Cross Canteen, Toul, France, WWI (1918).

Following World War I, Tanner continued to paint biblical scenes. He began to receive more honors as well. In 1923, the French government honored him by electing him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. When he was elected a full academician to the National Academy of Design in 1927, he presented the painting, Miraculous Haul of Fishes (c.1913) as his reception piece.

When Tanners wife died of pleurisy in 1925, Tanner was griefstricken and unable to paint for a while. He became reclusive, and his paintings became more mystical. The Burning of Sodom and Gomorrah (1932) is a good example of his later style of thickly painted mysterious landscapes. He spent his last years caring for his son, Jesse, who had suffered a nervous breakdown after graduating from Cambridge University and the Royal School of Mines in London. Tanner helped his son achieve a complete recovery, and Jesse eventually married and started his own business.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, when black writers and artists sought a new aesthetic, Tanner was criticized for not painting more black subjects. By the 1930s, though, Tanner was a respected elder whose work may have seemed old-fashioned to the younger generation. Tanner continued to pursue his inner vision, and he completed his final painting, Return from the Crucifixion, in 1936. When he died in his sleep in Paris on May 25, 1937, there was still wet paint on his canvases.

The first major American exhibition of Tanners work took place in 1969. Co-sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Institute and the National Collection of Fine Arts, the exhibit contained 90 oils, watercolors, drawings, and etchings. After opening in Washington, D.C., at the National Collection of Fine Arts, it traveled to seven American museums, thus becoming the first one-man show by a black artist to tour the countrys major museums.

Sources

Books

The Art of Henry Ossawa Tanner, Hyde Collection, 1972. Henry Ossawa Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991. Mathews, Marcia M., Henry Ossawa Tanner, University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Periodicals

American Heritage, February-March 1991.

American Visions, February 1991.

Connoisseur, January 1991.

Detroit Free Press, May 9, 1991.

Ebony, March 1991.

New York Times, February 17, 1991.

The Worlds Work, June 1909.

The Worlds Work, July 1909.

David Bianco

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Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was a black American painter. He earned a formidable reputation at a time when it was rare for a black American to pursue a career as a professional artist.

Henry O. Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on June 21, 1859. His father, a clergyman, writer, and educator, moved the family to Philadelphia in 1866. After Henry graduated from high school, he secured a job in a flour mill; the work was strenuous, and he soon became seriously ill. With his recovery, Bishop Tanner consented to let him study art.

In 1880 Tanner began his studies at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where his principal teachers were Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase. By 1882 Tanner was painting on his own, occasionally selling a painting or a drawing. In 1888 he set up a photography studio in Atlanta, Ga. The venture failed, but he secured a teaching position at Clark University in Atlanta.

At Clark, Tanner met Bishop Joseph L. Hartzell. The bishop, impressed with Tanner's artistic ability, arranged an exhibition in Cincinnati. Not one piece was sold, but the bishop bought them all to help the young artist—morally and financially. With this money Tanner left for Europe to work in an atmosphere free of the virulent racism that permeated American life.

After 5 years of study at the Académie Julian in Paris, Tanner showed the painting The Young Sabot-makerat the prestigious Salon des Artistes Français. He participated continually in Salon exhibitions until 1924. In 1897 he became internationally known when the French government purchased the Resurrection of Lazarus.

The young woman who posed for the figure of Mary in the Annunciation (1898) became Tanner's wife in 1899. They returned to the United States in 1902. After their only child was born in New York City the next year, Tanner moved his family to Paris. Except for occasional visits to America, he remained abroad for the rest of his life.

The years brought numerous awards and honors, the most significant being Tanner's election in 1923 by the French government as a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. Later, America honored him with full membership in its National Academy of Art and Design. He was the first black American to achieve this distinction.

After his death in Paris on May 25, 1937, interest in Tanner's works diminished considerably. The most renowned of all black artists was rediscovered, largely as a result of a major exhibit in New York, in 1967. Two years later the Smithsonian Institution presented a large retrospective that circulated extensively throughout the United States.

Tanner was an excellent draftsman. Often compared to Eakins, he can be more accurately compared to Albert P. Ryder and Ralph Blakelock. Yet his work also relates to Rembrandt in terms of technique and composition, as clearly illustrated in Tanner's Daniel in the Lion's Den. Dramatic lighting made Tanner's paintings between 1890 and 1905 prime examples of modern chiaroscuro. His skillful use of glazing was a unique element of his style. Although his Banjo Lesson (1893) is considered a classic work of an ethnic subject, Tanner usually found his inspiration in landscapes and biblical themes.

Further Reading

The biography of Tanner by Marcia M. Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist (1969), depicts the virtually enforced Europeanization of Tanner's talent and ascribes his obscurity as an American artist to changes in taste. Ralph W. Bullock, In Spite of Handicaps: Brief Biographical Sketches (1927), and Langston Hughes, Famous American Negroes (1954), both contain chapters on Tanner. Brief biographies of Tanner and discussions of his work appear in Alain Locke, Negro Art: Past and Present (1936); James A. Porter, Modern Negro Art (1943); Russell L. Adams, Great Negroes: Past and Present (1963); Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968); and Henri Ghent, Eight Afro-American Artists (1971), an exhibition catalog. □

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Tanner, Henry Ossawa

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859–1937, American painter, b. Pittsburgh; son of a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He studied with Eakins in Philadelphia and in Paris. Tanner made many trips to Palestine to obtain background for his religious paintings. His work is naturalistic, and the religious subjects especially are strongly rendered. Among his paintings are Christ and Nicodemus (Pa. Acad. of the Fine Arts); Two Disciples at the Tomb (Art Inst., Chicago); The Banjo Lesson (Hampton Inst., Hampton, Va.).

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