A Black American In The Paris Salon


At the age of twenty Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then considered the finest art school in the country. He was lean, light-skinned, extremely shy, and the only black among some 230 students. His classmate Joseph Pennell recorded what happened as Tanner gained confidence: “He came, he was young, an octoroon, very well dressed, far better than most of us. … He was quiet and modest. … We were interested at first, but he soon passed almost unnoticed. … Little by little, however, we were conscious of a change. I can hardly explain, but he seemed to want things; we seemed in the way, and the feeling grew. … Then he began to assert himself, and to cut a long story short, one night his easel was carried out into the middle of Broad Street and, though not painfully crucified, he was firmly tied to it and left there.”

Despite the sporadic resentments of his classmates, Tanner found the perfect teacher in Thomas Eakins, the school’s charismatic and headstrong professor of drawing and painting. At one point, after receiving praise from Eakins on a particular study, Tanner immediately stopped working on the piece for fear of ruining it. Tanner recalled: “Well, he [Eakins] was disgusted. ‘What have you been doing? Get it, get it better or get it worse. No middle ground of compromise.’”

Eakins taught Tanner how to render the human form in two dimensions, how to manipulate light and shadow to express a mood, and how to probe into the depths of his subject. In a rare tribute to a former student, Eakins painted Tanner’s portrait in 1902, years after Tanner had left his tutelage. At the time, Tanner was the more acclaimed artist.

Some critics felt he had sold out to the white world when he abandoned black genre painting after 1895, but Tanner claimed to be in pursuit of truths that transcended race.

Eakins’s strong influence is apparent in Tanner’s best-known work, The Banjo Lesson (1893), a tender portrait of an elderly black man teaching a young boy how to play a banjo. The picture radiates an Eakinsesque fascination with light and shadow, and its subject—common folk in an ordinary situation—is also Eakins-inspired. Though Tanner painted the piece after living in France for several years, he based it on drawings made during a summer in rural North Carolina. He explained why he was drawn to such subjects: “In [my] mind many of the artists who have represented Negro life have only seen the comic, the ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and affection for the warm big heart within such a rough exterior.”

And yet Tanner abandoned black genre entirely after 1895, turning to the biblical scenes that eventually won him prizes and generous patronage. More than anything, it seemed, he wanted artistic success—in traditional terms. He once told his friend W. E. B. Du Bois, “I have never been able to sell one of my pictures to a Colored man.” Although some critics felt he sold out to the white world, he saw himself, rather, as an expatriate in pursuit of aesthetic truth, a vision of beauty that transcended race. Another Tanner friend, the black American poet Countee Cullen, whose experience paralleled Tanner’s in many ways, wrote in the poem “To Certain Crittics”: “Then call me traitor if you must… / I’ll bear your censure as your praise, / For never shall the clan / Confine my singing to its ways / Beyond the ways of man.”

Like Rembrandt, Tanner interpreted the scriptures in a personal way, unencumbered by an impulse to present moral lessons or a desire to convert the viewer.

In 1889, after unsuccessfully attempting to support himself as an artist in Philadelphia, Tanner went to Atlanta to open a photography studio, hoping to earn a steadier income and still have time to paint. Perhaps he thought Atlanta’s large black population of about sixty-five thousand would support such a venture. It didn’t, and the business failed. Tanner’s luck turned when a couple he had met in Atlanta, Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell, took an interest in his career and arranged for an exhibition in Cincinnati, his first solo show. When nothing sold, the Hartzells bought the entire collection for about three hundred dollars. With this money, along with funds from his father and seventy-five dollars from a “Mr. E——of Philadelphia” (possibly Eakins), Tanner sailed for Europe on the City of Chester in January 1891.

In Paris he enrolled in the Académie Julian, a chain of studios founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, previously a prizefighter, painter, and promoter of wrestling matches. The atmosphere at Julian’s, convivial and frothing with creativity, was at first unsettling. “Never had I seen or heard such a bedlam—or men waste so much time,” Tanner wrote. ”… Never were windows opened. They were nailed fast at the beginning of the cold season. Fifty or sixty men smoking in such a room for two or three hours would make it so that those on the back rows could hardly see the model.” The drinking, too, fascinated him. He wondered how the French could drink so much and never get drunk. Initially he avoided all wine, fearing he might like it too well.