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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
The advent of World War I shattered Tanner’s peaceful life. In August 1914 he and Jessie fled their country home in Trépied—burying their pewter collection in the backyard—to avoid the advancing Germans. They went to Rye, England, where their son remembers their having tea with Henry James in a rose garden, an idyll in the midst of international upheaval. Tanner was so distressed by the war that he couldn’t paint. “One reads the papers all day,” he wrote to a friend, “but only once in a while, thank God, does one realize the suffering and despair that is contained—a sentence like 40 killed, 400 killed, 4,000 missing, 40,000 losses. How many loving, carefully raised sons in that number, how many fathers, how many lonely wives, mothers, children, sweethearts, waiting for the return that never comes.”
At fifty-eight he was too old for combat, though, he concluded, not too old to contribute. He became a lieutenant in the American Red Cross’s Farm Service Bureau, overseeing his own plan of growing vegetables around army hospitals and base depots. In 1918 he became an artist with the Bureau of Publicity, for which he sketched and painted scenes of Red Cross canteens.
Throughout the war Tanner exchanged letters with his family, who had returned to their cottage in Trépied. His wife wrote about the garden and the neighbors, his son about the occasional air raids, noting once that “we had 7 bombs go off 100 yards from our house. Now as you can understand this has upset mother a good deal.”
At the war’s end Tanner resumed his quiet life at Trépied, and later, his work at his Paris studio. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic his reputation grew, and his paintings continued to sell well. In 1922 a group of black artists and art teachers in Washington, D.C., formed a Tanner Art Students Society, which organized an exhibition of art by blacks at Dunbar High School. Such recognition prefigured the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s when black painters and writers began exploring their own cultural themes. These artists saw Tanner as an important symbol of achievement.
When Jessie died of pleurisy in 1925, Tanner, paralyzed with sorrow, was for a while unable to paint. He became more reclusive, and when he resumed painting, his art became even more mystical. Late works, such as The Burning of Sodom and Gomorrah (1932), are thickly painted and still religious in theme, with simplified forms and small figures against large landscapes. “It is in his latest, loosest works that his spirit glows most brightly,” said one critic. “His storm-tossed skies and mysterious landscapes with their transparent rocks haunt the viewer’s eye.”
He spent his last years caring for his son, Jesse, who in 1926, after graduating from Cambridge University and the Royal School of Mines in London, suffered a mental breakdown. With his father’s help Jesse was able to recover completely, marry, and eventually start his own business.
In May 1937 a frail Henry O. Tanner died in his sleep in his Paris apartment. He was buried in Sceaux next to his wife, not far from the grave of Marie Curie. The New York Times recorded his passing, listing his honors and achievements and noting “the touch of intense emotion in all of [his] figure work, the obvious effort to embody an idea just beyond the power of the medium to render.” Today this intensity still radiates from Tanner’s paintings, even from one that was cloaked in dust and hidden in a closet for forty years.