February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.