There is nothing saccharine or idealized in Tanner's work.
There is nothing saccharine or idealized in Tanner's work.
Courtesy of MFAH

An American Artist

In 1872, 13-year-old Henry Ossawa Tanner was walking with his father in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park when he saw a man making a painting of a tree. Then and there he decided he wanted to become an artist. With 15 cents from his parents, he promptly bought "dry colors and a couple of scraggy brushes." Becoming a successful professional artist has never been an easy thing to do, but if you were the son of a former slave in late 19th century America, it was exponentially more difficult.

"Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, presents more than 100 of the artist's works. From a very early and charmingly awkward painting of a lion at the zoo to a haunting and expressively modern image of the "Return from The Crucifixion," painted in 1936, the show is a thoughtful survey of Tanner's career. The artist died in Paris in 1937.

The early painting, Pomp at the Zoo (ca. 1880), shows a crowd clustered around and gawking at a caged lion. A tiny, neatly rendered brass sign at the top of his cage reads "African Lion." Lion imagery appears again in one of two studies made for an unfinished genre painting of the fable Androcles and the Lion. In the study for the lion you can see the evolution of the artist's talent and his movement from a casual, observed scene to the kind of large and ambitious genre paintings prized in the 19th century. Racial readings are invariably applied to the work of African-American artists, then and now. Sometimes they are relevant, sometimes the projection of the viewer. (And they would probably irritate Tanner, who wanted to be taken on his own terms.) One could read the noble, trapped "African Lion" at the zoo and the gawking crowds as a metaphor for the constraints of racism on people of African origin, but Tanner was also fascinated with painting animals. As for the unfinished Androcles painting, it is hard to believe the story of the Roman slave ultimately freed through his kindness to the lion wouldn't have more symbolism than usual for a man whose mother was born a slave.


"Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit"

Through January 13, 2013

Tanner's mother was one of 11 children born to a woman held in slavery. According to one source, the father of six of the children was a freedman named Charles Miller, the other five were fathered by the white plantation owner. Tanner's grandmother sent her 11 children to freedom via the underground railroad. Tanner's mother was sent to a family in Pittsburgh and met her husband, Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, when they both were studying at Avery College. Going from slavery to being enrolled as a college student is an unfathomable journey for anyone, especially a woman in 19th century America. She must have been an extraordinary woman and the daughter of an extraordinary woman who managed to give her children the gift of freedom against extraordinary odds.

Tanner received his early art education in Philadelphia with some difficulty. Refused instruction by some because he was black, he ultimately studied with the progressive and legendary Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Tanner was one the first African-Americans to attend the school. Patrons later helped Tanner embark on a European tour to Rome via London and Paris. In 1891, upon reaching Paris, he decided to remain there, studying at the Académie Julian. Tanner spent the rest of his life in France, returning to the United States to visit his family or for exhibitions. Paris, while not devoid of racism, was an infinitely more tolerant and welcoming environment for the artist — as it would be for future generations of African-American artists. As Tanner said of his life in Paris, "I am simply M. Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there in terms of absolute social equality."

When I look at Tanner's work, it is his humanism and his strong, compassionate and dignified depictions of women that stand out. From his Whistler-esque portrait of his mother sitting in a chair in profile to his depictions of women from the Bible, there is nothing saccharine or idealized. Tanner's women have an individuality and gravitas rooted in maternal love and sacrifice. Tanner came into his own in his religious paintings. His 1896 work, The Resurrection of Lazarus was shown in the 1897 salon, won third place and was purchased by the French government for the Musée du Luxembourg. The warm light of Lazarus' darkened tomb illuminates a group of figures clustered in a natural rather than a theatrical way, while a low-key Jesus revives the dead man.

The artist's Symbolist-influenced work from after the turn of the century is some of his strongest. Tanner's scenes are suffused with a blue-green light and filled with more indistinct but emotionally evocative figures. The surfaces become thicker and more engaging as the artist experiments with mixtures of tempera and oil. One of my favorites is perhaps one of the Tanner's last works. Return from the Crucifixion, (1936) shows a crowd returning from witnessing Christ's execution, the figures blend into the darkening landscape. At the head of the crowd and incredibly subtly highlighted is the figure of woman, likely Mary returning from watching the death of her son. It's a powerful but quiet work and one whose grief and loss moves beyond the biblical details to broad human commentary.


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