Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The annals of American art are crowded with artists who achieved renown in their life­times, but whose reputations – for a variety of reasons – faded after their demise. No story is more poignant than that of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a gifted African American painter who grew up in Philadelphia, but, to escape painful discrimination, pursued his career in France.

Henry Ossawa Tanner suffered much. Racial preju­dice inhibited his progress. He cared deeply about the plight of his people. He could have become the finest painter of everyday life among his fellow African Americans, but he had other things in mind. Deter­mined to be a serious painter appreciated for the quality of his art, regardless of the color of his skin, he made the wrenching decision to study and work abroad, free of the racism that plagued the United States.

Once famous and respected on both sides of the Atlantic, Tanner’s reputation is being rescued from a half-century of artistic limbo. A highly­-acclaimed exhibition of his works, organized by the Phila­delphia Museum of Art, which recently completed a national tour, suggested that at long last Tanner can be judged on the merit of his work, not on the basis of his race. “There was ‘something within'” Tan­ner, Philadelphia journalist Chuck Stone has written, “that exalted beauty whenever his painter’s brush touched a canvas, a something that soared above the confines of race and nation:’ Today, vindi­cation has come at last for this craftsman of conviction and exceptional skill, who remains one of America’s major under­-appreciated painters.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh on June 21, 1859, the first of nine children of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, later a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a former slave. They named their son after Osawatomie, Kansas, where the revered white abolitionist John Brown launched his antislavery cam­paign. Young Henry led a somewhat nomadic existence as his father’s ministry took him from Washington, D. C. – where, coincidentally, the family lived within a stone’s throw of where today stands the National Gallery of Art, which owns several of the artist’s works – to Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. In 1868 the Tanners moved into an eight room house at 2908 Diamond Street (now Park Avenue) in North Philadel­phia, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The years between 1868 and 1891, most of which Tanner spent in Philadelphia, proved eventful for the community. As America’s second largest city, Philadelphia played a key role in the nation’s post-Civil War industrial expansion, and shared in the resulting era of prosperity. The burgeoning metropolis boasted relatively advanced schools, hospitals, newspapers, a zoo, museums and the venerable Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts. Ten million people visited the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, further en­hancing the city’s sense of pride and progress.

Life was not as promising for Philadelphia’s African American community, which constituted less than four percent of the city’s popula­tion. In spite of the Emancipa­tion Proclamation and subsequent advances, as well as the dedicated efforts of Quakers, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and cou­rageous individuals such as Lucretia Mott, discrimination against African Americans was widespread. “There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia,” Fred­erick Douglass observed. Al­though racial hostility actually grew as the century pro­gressed, significant numbers of Blacks, including members of the Tanner family, managed to become highly educated, financially successful business, social, and political leaders.

Growing up in a prominent minister’s household, Henry was, to some extent, shielded from the worst aspects of prej­udice. Within his dose, nur­turing family, faith, courage, and achievement were empha­sized, and confidence about the future was encouraged. Nonetheless, to the shy, frail youngster what might lie ahead must have seemed daunting. One day in 1872, while walking through Fair­mount Park with his father, Henry was entranced by the sight of a painter at work on a landscape. According to his own account, he decided to become an artist on the spot, promptly bought brushes and paint, and commenced paint­ing in the park the very next day. At first the teenage Tan­ner ” … decided to become America’s great marine painter,” depicting seascapes such as he had seen in Earle’s Galleries and Bailey’s jewelry store on Chestnut Street. His carefully composed Harbor Scene of 1876 is a remarkable achievement for a teenager with no formal art training, and even the less ambitious Ship in a Storm painted three years later showed great promise.

After graduating from Rob­erts Vaux Grammar School in 1877, Tanner labored for a time in a flour business, but after a serious illness forced him to stop work, he persuaded his skeptical parents to allow him to pursue his artistic aspira­tions. In December 1879 he began classes at the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts, where celebrated painter and teacher Thomas Eakins tutored him in anatomy, dis­section, and drawing from the nude. Over the course of the next few years the two became friends, and Eakins later painted a memorable portrait of Tanner; While several “dis­agreeable [racial] incidents” marred Tanner’s experiences at the Academy, the rigorous curriculum honed his talents.

For a time his ambition was to be an animal painter – he vowed to become “an Ameri­can Landseer,” referring to Sir Edwin Landseer, the eminent nineteenth century English animal artist. Eakins’ insis­tence on sketching from life included visits to the Philadel­phia Zoo, recorded by the young artist’s charming illus­tration which appeared in Harper’s Young People Magazine in 1888 and an oil painting, “Pomp” at the Zoo (circa 1880), depicting the large lion, Pompeii, ogled by a curious audience. Tanner’s interest in portraying animals, evidenced by Horse and Two Dogs in a Landscape (1891), continued throughout his long career.

Tanner rented a studio at 927 Chestnut Street in the mid-1880s, and his works were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy and the National Academy of Design in New York. In spite of early hints of success, Tanner still ques­tioned his ability to establish himself as a professional painter. Through Eakins he became intrigued by photogra­phy and moved in January 1889 to Atlanta, Georgia, where he opened a photogra­phy studio. The venture failed, but Tanner was befriended by Methodist Bishop Joseph C. Hartzell, who helped him secure a position teaching drawing at Clark University. That summer Tanner visited North Carolina’s Highlands, where he made sketches and watercolors and took photo­graphs which inspired later paintings, including his cele­brated The Banjo Lesson.

Although encouraged by his parents, Tanner increas­ingly despaired of succeeding in the hostile racial atmos­phere in this country. Declar­ing he “could not fight prejudice and paint at the same time,” he determined to follow the familiar path of aspiring artists and study in Europe. Bishop Hartzell orga­nized an exhibition of Tanner paintings in Cincinnati in December 1890 to raise money for the journey; when none sold, the bishop and his wife purchased the entire lot, pro­viding the artist with enough funds for his first trip abroad. Tanner’s 1902 portrait of Bishop Hartzell suggests the painter’s continuing affection for his old friend and benefactor.

Tanner embarked on Janu­ary 4, 1891, to study in Rome, but a stop in Paris convinced him to stay there instead. Enrolling at the respected Academie Julian, he refined academic disciplines he had acquired at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, working from live models and enduring weekly critiques by noted artists. While Tanner later contended, “I was never in the least brilliant in the work of the school,” his char­coal sketch of a black man, executed about 1891-1893, suggests that he was, in the estimation of Dewey F. Mosby, director of the Picker Art Gal­lery at Colgate University, a “superb draughtsman … with an absolutely sure touch.” Joining the American Art Students’ Club, he began a lifelong friendship with Rodman Wanamaker, scion of the famous Philadelphia de­partment store family, who became a staunch and gener­ous supporter.

Despite his convictions, the artist clearly sought the appro­bation of the white establish­ment which dictated success or failure in the Paris art world, then the center of the artistic universe. Not long after arriv­ing in Paris, he set his sights on having works accepted at the celebrated Salon, the huge, official art exhibition held each spring. Eventually his pleasant scenes of the French country­side and his later biblical works garnered Salon awards and sold well. The Paris Sa­lons, Tanner’s tickets to fame and fortune, made him one of the few American artists of any race to achieve such international renown in his day. While Tanner’s earlier paint­ings reflected the dark brown tones and painstaking realism of his mentor Eakins, in the receptive, cosmopolitan atmos­phere of Paris, with its lively cultural life, his style became broader, brighter, and more generalized. Exposure to French impressionists and summers of plein air sketching in Brittany loosened his brush­work and emboldened his handling of light and color, without forfeiting his personal vision and individual style.

Recovering from a bout with typhoid fever, Tanner returned to the United States in 1893 with the intention, he said later, of creating art that would present African Ameri­cans in a dignified and sympa­thetic light. Speaking on “The American Negro in Art” at the Congress on Africa, held in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposi­tion, he vowed to paint posi­tive pictures which would contrast with the “comic, ludi­crous side” of Black life often portrayed by white artists. For a time he followed through.

In October 1893 The Banjo Lesson – which Darrel Sewell, curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art hails as “absolutely the great­est American black genre work” – was exhibited at Earle’s Galleries in Philadel­phia to great acclaim. Presum­ably based on his earlier visit to the mountains of North Carolina and, perhaps, in­spired by Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Banjo Song,” the large painting de­picts a gray haired African American patiently teaching a young boy to play the instru­ment. Surrounded by the glow of an unseen earth fire in a humble cabin, the painting presents an unforgettable study of bonding of old age and youth. Imbued with a realism tempered by sensitiv­ity which must have made his teacher Eakins proud, The Banjo Lesson has become Tanner’s most celebrated work. With it he achieved a signifi­cant breakthrough in 1894 when the canvas was selected by judges for the Paris Salon. In the artist’s eyes this was the sine qua non of artistic success, but his painting attracted little attention. Today, reproduc­tions abound, particularly in the homes of the Philadelphia area’s African Americans. The original is owned by the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

In 1894 Tanner painted another masterful and some­what under-appreciated Black genre work, The Thankful Poor, a sympathetically compelling depiction of piety, humility, and poverty in a Black house­hold. “The dignified portrayal of the old man and boy at prayer,” writes Sewell, “tran­scends any other image of Black Americans in American art.” Comedian Bill Cosby’s wife Camille purchased the painting as a gift for her hus­band in 1981 for a quarter of a million dollars – at the time the highest price ever paid for a work by a Black artist.

Tanner’s participation in the Chicago congress, along with his re-exposure to racial issues in his homeland, triggered his treatment of African-American subjects during his two year stay in Philadelphia. He may also have been responding to his father’s implied challenge to make positive statements about his race on canvas just as effectively as the bishop from the pulpit. His paintings devoted to Black themes aroused enthusiasm in African-American circles. Educator Booker T. Washing­ton and, later, editor W.E.B. Du Bois spread the word about Tanner’s accomplish­ments and encouraged pur­chase of his works or reproductions of them. Some contemporaries thought he could launch a movement for upbeat images of African Americans, but Tanner’s per­sonality and artistic goals – not to mention the social cli­mate of the country – were not conducive to such an ef­fort. Paintings of Black sub­jects, even those as distinguished as Tanner’s, were not very saleable in the late nineteenth century. “Had he continued” [to paint African-American subjects], claims Tanner biographer Marcia Mathews, “there seems little doubt that he could have created a lasting documentary of racial types and themes unlike anything in the history of American art.” Concluding that he could not prosper as a painter of Black culture and determined to leave “his sor­rowful and humiliating life” in America behind him forever, Tanner returned to France in 1894, and turned to other artistic directions.

Devout by upbringing and nature, the minister’s son increasingly found his greatest inspiration in depicting reli­gious subjects. In the mid-1890s he began painting luminous, moving recreations of biblical episodes filled with mysterious, evocative light. Since religious themes were highly esteemed in the French art world, it was a comfortable, logical, practical step for an expatriate painter seeking to attract international respect. Tanner’s efforts were soon crowned with success: his dramatic Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1895), in which the iso­lated prophet’s perilous situa­tion is underscored by the shadowy, restlessly pacing beasts surrounding him, won a coveted honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896.

The following year Tanner created The Resurrection of Lazarus, a piece known for its powerful realism, in which strong figures captured in dramatic light and shadow convey a somber aura of mys­tery. The Resurrection of Lazarus drew rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and earned a third-class medal at the Salon. The painting was purchased by the French gov­ernment and is now part of the collections of the Muse&eacute d’Orsay in Paris. Tanner scholars have speculated that this evocative depiction, re­cording the moment when Lazarus stirs to life, was prompted by the artist’s con­cern about the struggles and hopes of Black Americans following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Never­theless, his recognition in the Salons made him an internationally-known artist, boosted sales of his works and, as Tanner later put it, “gave me a courage and a power for hard work, and a hope that I had never before possessed.”

Religious subjects became the focus of Tanner’s activities. Beginning in 1897 and continu­ing for several decades, he made occasional trips to the Holy Land and to North Af­rica, often with the financial assistance of Rodman Wana­maker. During his far-flung travels he sketched and painted scenes and back­grounds which he would later incorporate in his monumental biblical canvases. Several of his finished paintings garnered such public recognition that he was referred to as the “poet­-painter of Palestine.” His tran­quil, luminous depictions of faraway localities, ranging from the Wailing Wall in Jeru­salem to a kasbah in Morocco, capture exotic subjects in the strong, clear light of the region.

In 1899 Henry Ossawa Tanner married Jessie Macauley Olssen, an Ameri­can of Swedish-Scottish de­scent, whose lively personality complimented her husband’s quiet reserve. A tall, hand­some woman, she served as his model for a number of paintings. The Tanners main­tained homes and studios in Paris and in the country, en­joying a quiet social life with both American and French friends. The happy couple’s only child, a son, Jesse Ossawa Tanner (1903-1985), lived nearly his entire life in France.

Eventually fellow American artists referred to Tanner with respect and affection as the “dean of American painters” in Paris. Aspiring artists – both Black and white – that sought him out received warm wel­come, support, and often financial assistance. Tanner found personal peace in the tolerant atmosphere of France and flourished professionally because he was judged as an artist, not solely as a Black. He eloquently described France in 1908. “There is a breadth, a generosity, an obsolete cosmo­politanism about her recogni­tion of the fine art, which bars no nationality, no race, no school, or variation of artistic method. All she asks is that the art shall be true, in other words that it shall set forth life.”

Following a triumphal tour of several American cities, Tanner’s stunning painting, The Annunciation (1898), was purchased in 1899 by the Wilstach Collection, now part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the first of his works purchased by an American museum. In this large and compelling picture, he por­trayed Mary as a simple, win­some woman, awed by the presence of the Angel Gabriel, in the form of a blinding shaft of light. The following year Tanner’s Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (1899), in which the play of moonlight and shadow create an ethereal aura, re­ceived the prestigious Lippin­cott Prize at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The painting is included in the Academy’s extensive perma­nent collection.

Several Black art historians contend that Tanner’s obses­sion with the flight into Egypt, which he depicted in more than a dozen works of art, reflected his memories of Afri­can Americans escaping slav­ery by fleeing to the North under cover of night. Al­though the depictions varied somewhat between, for exam­ple, the 1899 and the 1923 versions, the artist’s deep feeling for the Holy Family’s clandestine flight to escape King Herod’s assassins is man­ifest. In Tanner’s hands the scriptural story is linked to the more universal theme of flight from persecution.

Henry Ossawa Tanner is justly celebrated for the origi­nality, deep feeling, human dignity, profound psychologi­cal insights and unusual colors with which he endowed his biblical canvases. “My effort,” he said in 1924, “has been not only to put the Biblical inci­dent in the original setting but at the same time to give the human touch which makes the whole world kin and which ever remains the same.” On another occasion he told an interviewer that his aim was “to present the simple domes­tic side of biblical personages.” According to Sewell, “Tanner saw the broader human significance in biblical scenes, so they’re of interest to a wide audience.” The artist stressed that l’tis religious canvases were created with the same care as “less holy subjects,” reflecting his conviction that “color and design should be as carefully thought out as if the subject had only these quali­ties.”

Mingling the inspirations of Rembrandt and Eakins, these intriguingly composed master­pieces combine deep, harmonious colors, dramatic light and shadow, broad brush­work, and great narrative appeal. One of the few suc­cessful twentieth-century exponents of religious art and one of the few outstanding American painters in this genre, Tanner’s biblical works have enduring importance and timeless appeal. “If you study them,” his son Jesse once said of this father’s paintings, “you keep discovering new things about them – a new form is revealed, a new star seems to shine, a new shadow stretches out – in a word, his pictures are very much alive.”

Both professional and fam­ily obligations occasionally summoned the artist to Phila­delphia and elsewhere in America. He was keenly inter­ested in artistic and racial developments in his native land and on occasion ex­pressed regret about his expa­triate status. “True – this condition [racial prejudice] has driven me out of my country,” he declared in 1914, “and while I cannot sing our National Hymn … still deep in my heart I love it and am some­times sad that I cannot live where my heart is.” But his decision to remain abroad was irrevocable.

World War I deeply dis­turbed the pacific artist, who questioned his role as a painter while men were fighting and dying not far from his adopted home. After a period of inac­tivity, Tanner served with the American Red Cross in France and proposed a program for convalescing soldiers to culti­vate crops on land around army hospitals, which he ran from 1917 to the end of the war. Among the few works created between 1914 and 1918 were quick sketches of Red Cross activities and several paintings of wartime scenes, now hanging at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D. C.

Given his international celebrity, it was inevitable that Tanner was urged by Booker T. Washington and other Black leaders to return home to paint pictures of his people again and provide inspiration for African-American artists. But Tanner, while recognizing and abhorring racial injustice, sup­porting such causes as the N.A.A.C.P., and maintaining friendships with such promi­nent figures as Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Wash­ington, was genuinely dedi­cated to his pursuit of high art. He felt he could not fulfill his artistic potential while combat­ing discrimination.

Tanner’s stand angered some Black leaders, but most came to understand the sincer­ity of his conviction. They appreciated that as the first African-American painter to win international renown he provided inspiration for future Black artists, even from afar. “He made it possible,” summa­rizes Tanner’s grand-niece, Rae Alexander-Minter, “for genera­tions of black artists to com­pete in the world of art, giving them an example of how to create without capitulating to rampant racism.”

A man of independent mind and vision, Tanner was no artistic experimenter. He shunned post-impressionism and the abstract movements which blossomed in his ma­ture years, choosing his own style. Nevertheless, he was highly respected in France and America, applauded by critics and the public alike. Reflecting the broad esteem in which he was held in his native land, he was elected, along with fellow Pennsylvanian Mary Cassatt, an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1909. The first African American so honored, Tanner became a full academician in 1927. His achievements as artist and humanitarian were recognized by the French government in 1923 when he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Tanner’s later years were marked with additional awards, but gradually chang­ing artistic tastes, the onset of the Great Depression and personal tragedies took their toll. Distressed by the death of his father in 1923 and his wife in 1925, the mental problems of his son and his own ill­-health, his active career essen­tially ended at least a decade before his death. Although he continued to paint to the very end, when he died in his sleep in Paris on May 25, 1937, he was largely unknown to youn­ger generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tanner’s rejection of mod­ern art trends and adherence to old academic traditions, along with his lengthy exile abroad and the tendency of art historians to relegate him to a sub-category of “Negro-artist,” led to a steady decline in his reputation following his death. For three decades his name was kept alive primarily through the writings of two Howard University professors, Alain Locke and James A. Porter.

In the 1960s, the impact of the civil rights movement, with its accompanying atten­tion to the cultural achieve­ments of African Americans, led to several Tanner exhibi­tions and rediscovery of this neglected artist so long out of fashion. A 1969 retrospective in Washington at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art), the largest one-man show ever devoted to a Black artist, accelerated Tanner’s rescue from artistic oblivion. His works were prominently displayed in subsequent exhibitions of African-American art. In 1973 the U.S. Postal Service recog­nized his special place in American art history with the issuance of a commemorative stamp.

Tanner’s celebrated come­back culminated with last year’s major exhibition orga­nized by Sewell at the Phila­delphia Museum. The quality of the artist’s work, under­scored by an excellent schol­arly catalogue, was hailed by critics in Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and San Francisco on the show’s national tour, and by writers for major national publications. It was “the exhi­bition to see” in 1991 wrote the redoubtable Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metro­politan Museum of Art, then editor-in-chief of Connoisseur. “In certain ways,” added Hoving, “Tanner is a better artist than … Eakins.”

For a new generation of art lovers, Henry Ossawa Tanner emerges as a painter of com­pelling sensitivity, enormous skill and subtle imagination, who imbued his canvases with a passionate, personal and mysterious feeling. Viewers today find his storm-tossed skies, evocative landscapes, vivid biblical scenes, penetrat­ing portraits and touching genre pictures hauntingly memorable.

There is also new apprecia­tion for Tanner the man. “Just as Tanner found his own indi­vidual mode within a welter of stylistic alternatives, so he confronted the profound injus­tice of prejudice against his race with dignity and self-esteem, determined that it would not stand in his way as a painter;’ offered Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, last year.

A century after he left these shores to escape racial discrim­ination, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s art truly belongs not only to the Keystone State, but to the whole country. He was not only the nation’s first ma­jor Black artist, but he belongs in the front ranks of all Ameri­can painters. At last the prophet is with honor in his own country. Welcome home, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

 

For Further Reading

Campbell, F. J. “Henry O. Tanner’s Biblical Pictures,” Fine Arts Journal. 25, 3 (March 1911), 166.

Cole, Helen. “Henry O. Tanner, Painter.” Brush and Pencil. 6, 3 (June 1900), 97-107.

Eldridge, Charles C. American Imagination and Symbolist Paintings. New York: New York University, 1979.

Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Hills, Patricia. Turn of the Cen­tury America: Paintings, Graphics, Photographs, 1890-1910. New York: Whitney Mu­seum of American Art, 1977.

Igoe, L. M. 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Books on Demand, 1981.

MacChesney, Clara T. “A Poet Painter of Palestine.” International Studio. 50, 197 (July 1913), 11-15.

Matthews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Milner, John. The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Mosby, Dewy F., et al. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991.

Novak, B. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Scarborough, W. S. “Henry Ossawa Tanner.” Southern Workman. 31, 12 (December 1902), 661-670.

Sellin, David, and James K. Ballinger. Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910. Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1982.

Sweeney, J. Gray. Themes in American Painting. Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1977.

Thompson, Vance. “American Artists in Paris.” Cosmopolitan. 29 (May 1900), 20.

Woods, Naurice Frank. “Lending Color to Canvas Henry O. Tanner’s African-American Themes.” American Visions. 6, 1 (February 1991), 14-20.

 

The editor wishes to thank the many institutions which graciously loaned illustrations to accompany this piece.

 

Stephen May, a native of Roches­ter, New York, is a graduate of Wesleyan University and of George­town University Law School. A former mayor of Rochester and former assistant secretary of and the federal Department of Housing he and also Urban served as Development chairman of (HUD), the New York State Board of Elec­tions. A freelance writer now residing in Washington, now D.C., the author has written including for numerous magazines, including Ameri­can Arts Quarterly, American History Illustrated, Art Times, Early American Life, Washing­tonian, and The Southern Quarterly. His articles have also appeared in major newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and the Washington Post.