A Black American In The Paris Salon
In an age when the best black artists were lucky to exhibit their work at state fairs, Henry Ossawa Tanner was accepted by the most selective jury in France
February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
Dr. Philip Bellefleur had been headmaster of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf for about three years when he found the painting in 1970. He and a housekeeper had opened the door to a large storage closet, one that hadn’t been opened in five years, perhaps more. Inside they saw scores of dusty boxes and a half-dozen paintings stacked against the wall. After a quick look Bellefleur concluded that maybe two of the six pictures were valuable—one because it was so large, nine by twelve feet, and the other because it gave him goose bumps.
The large painting proved worthless, but the smaller one was subsequently identified as a work by the black American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, a successful expatriate in turn-of-the-century France. The picture, called The Thankful Poor, shows an old man and a young boy sitting at a table, praying before a meal. Painted in 1894, it is an example of Tanner’s early foray into black genre, a style at which he excelled but later abandoned. The Thankful Poor was on loan to the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art for eleven years before it was sold in 1981, fetching $250,000 from the actor Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, avid art collectors.
Most critics agree that Tanner was an accomplished draftsman, a deft colorist, a painter with a unique ability to capture what one writer called “something passionate and personal and strange.” Though art experts have called him the most talented black painter of the nineteenth century, his work is not widely known. A smattering of exhibitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s rekindled interest in Tanner, as have several shows that examined blacks as artists or blacks in art during the past decade.
An exhibition of Tanner’s work consisting of approximately one hundred paintings and drawings as well as memorabilia has just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; it will travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and finally to San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, where it will remain on view until March 1992. This survey, tracing the artist’s development—from his early experimentation, to his well-wrought academicism, to the looser and lighter style of his later years—will give a new audience a chance to see the qualities that made Tanner one of the most respected painters of his day.
Tanner’s parents, Benjamin and Sarah, met and married in antebellum Pittsburgh. Benjamin, born into a family that had been free for several generations, attended Avery College and Western Theological Seminary, both in Pennsylvania. As a minister and later a prominent bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he vehemently opposed slavery and often wrote on racial issues. Sarah, born in Winchester, Virginia, was the granddaughter of a white plantation owner. She fled north to freedom in Pennsylvania in the 1840s.
Their first child, born in 1859, was named Henry Ossawa, after Osawatomie, Kansas, where in 1856 the abolitionist John Brown murdered five slavery sympathizers. In 1866, when Benjamin Tanner was assigned to the pulpit of Philadelphia’s Bethel Church, his growing family, which eventually included seven children, moved into a brick house in Philadelphia said to have been a bakery. The seven-year-old Henry imagined it as the shop where young Ben Franklin, according to legend, bought the loaves of bread he carried into town under his arms.
Though his father urged him toward the ministry, Tanner decided at about the age of twelve to become an artist after seeing a landscape painter at work in Fairmount Park. “It was this simple event that, as it were, set me on fire,” he wrote years later. With fifteen cents from his mother, he bought paints and brushes and began to sketch. “From this time forward, I was all aglow with enthusiasm, working spare times between school hours, and it soon became the talk of the school—naturally helped on by my boasting—that I was going to be an artist.”
Tanner set out to be a marine painter, but when he was fourteen a friend told him America needed more animal painters, so he decided to paint animals instead. He sketched and made clay models of the beasts at the Philadelphia Zoo and later turned out loosely rendered landscapes. His parents, still wary of his chosen career, apprenticed him to a flour merchant. They relented only after he became severely ill, and from then on they supported his decision to paint.