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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
French society was enough to intoxicate him. For the first time in his life, Tanner, the artist, felt truly free. “I found in the studios men of all nations and races under the sun—Muscovites and Tartars; Arabs and Japanese; Hindoos and Mongolians; Africans and South Sea Islander—all working earnestly and harmoniously with students of the Caucasian race.”
A bout with typhoid, perhaps aggravated by Spartan living habits, sent Tanner home to Philadelphia in the fall of 1892. But the stay was only temporary, as Paris and especially its famous Salon beckoned to him. Each year the Salon jury rejected nearly four thousand works, and Tanner’s first attempt, a painting called The Bagpipe Lesson, had been passed over in 1893. Success came on his second try, in 1894, with The Banjo Lesson. The following year he exhibited two paintings, Brittany Interior and The Young Sabot Maker, and a pastel of the New Jersey coast by moonlight.
In 1896 Tanner inaugurated the style that was to make him famous. Daniel in the Lion’s Den, his first major biblical work, was accepted by the Salon jury but hung in a poor location until Eakins’s former teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme insisted that it be given a better place. The painting earned an honorable mention, Tanner’s first official commendation.
Tanner knew the Bible well, having grown up in the church. Like Rembrandt, he interpreted the Scriptures with an intensely personal vision, unencumbered by didactic intentions or a desire to convert others. “My effort has been not only to put the Biblical incident in the original setting … but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin,’ ” he wrote. As his reputation grew, so did the legend that when asked by his father to enter the ministry, he replied, “No, father, you preach from the pulpit and I will preach with my brush.” When questioned about the tale’s veracity, Tanner said simply, “That’s a pretty story—I won’t destroy it.”
The success of Daniel in the Lion’s Den inspired another biblical work, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1897). Rodman Wanamaker, son of the Philadelphia department-store founder and the head of the store’s Paris office, was so impressed with the new piece that he sent Tanner on two artistic pilgrimages to Egypt and Palestine. These trips, taken in 1897 and 1898, greatly affected Tanner’s art. He returned with studies of sundrenched landscapes that employed a subtler palette—soft earth tones, pinks, purples, blues, and yellows. Away on his first journey, he learned that the French government wished to purchase The Resurrection of Lazarus for its Luxembourg Gallery, an honor previously accorded to only a handful of Americans, among them James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. (The Luxembourg held works by living artists until their death and then transferred them to the Louvre.)
By the time of this triumph, Tanner had transformed himself into the elegant—and now successful—expatriate artist. In 1899, at the age of forty, he married Jessie Macauley Olssen, the daughter of a Swedish electrician from San Francisco. A professional singer, she was fifteen years his junior and “quite the prettiest girl in Paris.” She had posed as Mary for Tanner’s painting The Annunciation (1898) and continued to serve as his model throughout their married life, appearing three times in The Three Marys (1910). She was warm, outgoing, and devoted to her husband, and their twenty-six-year union, which had the support of both of their families, was an extremely happy one.
In 1903 Jessie gave birth to a son, Jesse Ossawa. By this time Tanner had begun to experiment with oil glazes, to enhance the depth and luminosity of his paintings. The process was tedious, with each glaze needing time to dry, and he worked on as many as fifteen to twenty canvases at once, favoring what became known as Tanner blues in lustrous and iridescent mixtures.
His success abroad inspired the founding of a Washington, D.C., arts society named for Tanner; in 1922 it mounted an exhibit of paintings by young blacks.
In 1906 the French government purchased The Disciples at Emmaus for quadruple the price it had paid for The Resurrection of Lazarus nine years earlier. The Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased The Annunciation, the Carnegie Institute of Art bought Christ at the Home of Mary and Martha (1905), and the Art Institute of Chicago acquired Two Disciples at the Tomb (1906). In 1909 the National Academy of Design elected him an associate member. These were his happiest years.