There are members of the art history world who, despite their significant contributions to the field, are sadly underrepresented. Henry Ossawa Tanner is one such artist. His name may not sound familiar; however, his achievements were vast, and the retrospect of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts aims to help solidify his impact on the art world. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, which opened this weekend, is a collection of more than 100 works, including several that have never been seen in this country before.
For those unfamiliar with Tanner, it is important to know that he was an African-American artist whose mother was a slave and whose father was an outspoken abolitionist. The time period in which he came into his craft was the years following the Civil War through the turn of the century. Upon realizing their son's talents, his parents supported his decision to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he was one of the first black students. There, he studied directly under famed American artist Thomas Eakins.
From there, Tanner moved abroad to study in Paris, where he gained international recognition with his awe-inspiring Resurrection of Lazarus. This painting was chosen for display in the esteemed Musée d'Orsay, solidifying his status as a successful painter, in all respects.
The collection on display is organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, and has been traveling the country for some time now. The exhibit is not just a collection of the artist's best works, but also a visual biography of Tanner's entire life. The exhibition begins with the artist's earliest paintings, some from his days at the academy. Students were encouraged to visit the zoo and paint the animals, and there are several pieces in this collection of lions. In his earliest works, Tanner is a realist painter. The lions are formed through detailed strokes of the brush. However, even in this early work, the artist's spirituality is on display. One such painting, Lion Licking his Paw, could be nothing more than that. In fact, it is based on the story of Androcles, an ancient tale of the man who helped take a thorn out of a lion's paw.
As Tanner grows as an artist, his methods transform. His work becomes more surrealist and his use of paint evolves. He begins painting landscapes, highly influenced by the surrealist painters of the time. Yet what is so different about these paintings is that the landscapes are American. He has captured something that feels very familiar in these works; we are not in France. His color palette strays from the stereotypical surrealist work we are used to seeing. Here he also begins to hone his layering technique, making the work feel like it is coming off of the canvas. Some of his paintings have as many as 35 layers of paint.
After he moves to France, Tanner's work takes another turn -- that of a religious painter. His most noted canvas, Resurrection of Lazarus, is on display in this collection and it is the first time this painting has ever been in the United States. It is a gorgeous painting that stops you in your tracks. Tanner brings you inside the tomb of Lazarus, which allows more focus on the reaction of those who have discovered him. Their faces are a mixture of shock and pleasure, every facial reaction one might imagine to be seen given the event. Tanner has captured every fold of fabric in Lazarus's robe; his detail is outstanding.
As Tanner progressed, his art took yet another turn. His palette became darker and sadder; however, there is always a glimmer of hope in the form of light. Tanner turns spirituality into bright whites and yellow hues that seem to be appearing from above or below; it is hard to say where Tanner thinks this beam comes from -- perhaps it is within?
There are many religious pieces included in this collection, but as many depictions of the Annunciation as you may have seen, you have not seen it portrayed like Tanner's. His use of light on the canvas is something to behold. It's as if there is something electric hidden behind the work. Interestingly enough, Tanner was friendly with Nikola Tesla and found his work fascinating.
There are so many reasons that this exhibition is important to art history. Tanner, although quite esteemed, is not as recognized as he should be. His accomplishments are great, and an African-American painter coming to fame in the turn of the century is exceptional in itself. But more than anything else, Tanner's work is remarkable. Hopefully, this exhibition has given him some of the credit he so deserves.
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 13, 2013. For more information, visit mfah.org