Henry Ossawa Tanner's Link to Black Church Inspired His Painting

Although influenced by Europe, he stayed true to his roots

Henry Ossawa Tanner was not only one of the most successful black artists in American history, but he was also one of the first American artists of any race to achieve an international reputation. Born before slavery was abolished, he undertook a profession where blacks were assumed to have no natural talent, and he persevered in the face of racial bigotry in some of its ugliest forms. His success inspired generations of African-Americans, from the artists of the Harlem Renaissance to the present day.

A new survey of Tanner's career, which premiered recently at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., adds a significant dimension to this important figure. "Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner" features 60 paintings, drawings, and watercolors that span the whole of Tanner's long and varied career, from early landscapes and animal paintings, to later religious paintings and scenes of North Africa. It also includes several recently discovered pictures, like "Camping Scene: Adirondack Reminiscence" (1880), the only signed and dated work of Tanner's from the 1880s. "Pilgrims at Emmaus" (1905), a masterpiece owned by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, is on view for the first time in the United States.

A fresh look at Tanner

While Tanner's work has been exhibited before, most notably in a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1991, the Nelson-Atkins show takes a fresh look at the artist. Most important, says Dewey Mosby, director of the Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and guest curator of the exhibition, the current exhibition tries to demonstrate how Tanner's African-American heritage inspired his art.

"Previous shows seem to have started with the preconceived notion that Tanner should be treated simply as an artist and not as an African-American artist," Dr. Mosby says. Because Tanner lived most of his adult life in France and painted only a few scenes of black life, he was often thought to be indifferent to the African part of his ancestry. The current show attempts to demonstrate that this was not the case. "I think it's pretty evident in his works that he was involved with themes that played a very significant role in the everyday religious life of African-Americans," Mosby says. "We get a clear sense of his racial pride."

Racial pride was certainly an important element in the family in which Henry Tanner was raised. He was born in 1859 to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a religious scholar and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Miller Tanner, who was born into slavery. He was born the same year that the abolitionist John Brown was hanged, and his parents derived his middle name from Osawatomie, Kan., where Brown launched his campaign to end slavery.

At the age of 13, young Henry decided to become an artist after seeing a painter at work in a park in Philadelphia. Seven years later he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he spent six years under the tutelage of the renowned artist and teacher Thomas Eakins. He depicted a wide range of subjects in his early career, but was particularly drawn to animal and marine subjects. "Lion Licking Its Paw" (1886), an early painting in which Tanner renders the enormous head and front paws of a lion in a combination of remarkably realistic detail and fluid brushwork, shows the young artist's technical skill.

In 1891, Tanner enrolled in the Academie Julian, a leading art school in Paris. By 1894, he was exhibiting at the Paris Salon, the prestigious annual exhibition held each spring. He became increasingly absorbed in Symbolism, then a new art movement whose chief practitioner was Paul Gauguin. Tanner was especially drawn to its principle of expressing ideas through color, line, and composition. He also turned more and more to religious painting. Tanner's arrival on the international art scene was heralded when his "Resurrection of Lazarus" won a medal at the 1897 Paris Salon and was purchased by the French government for the Musee du Luxembourg. By fall of that year, Tanner decided to devote his work almost exclusively to religious subjects.

Many religious paintings

Mosby argues that it is Tanner's choice of subject matter that demonstrates his regard for his racial heritage. His religious paintings, which make up the bulk of his oeuvre, share themes that were preached in the black churches of the day. Scenes that represent rebirth, exodus, resurrection, and slavery - themes pertinent to African-Americans in the decades following the Emancipation Proclamation - permeate Tanner's work even if the persons depicted are not always of African origin.

These ideas are well-represented in the Kansas City show in such paintings as "Flight Into Egypt" (c. 1907-12), "Nicodemus" (1899), and the El Greco-inspired "Return of the Holy Women" (1904), one of the highlights.

The show has other outstanding pieces. "Study for the Thankful Poor" (c. 1894) and "The Young Sabot Maker" (1895) represent the artist's short-lived interest in depicting traditional scenes of everyday life. The "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" (1897) is an understated, but extraordinarily tender portrayal of Mrs. Tanner. It shows his skill and interest in light effects and is particularly notable for its obvious reference to the famous maternal portrait by James McNeill Whistler, Tanner's contemporary.

"Portrait of Booker T. Washington" (1917), a friend of the Tanner family and supporter of the artist, is particularly striking for its composition and provocative use of color. "Disciples Healing the Sick" (c. 1930) and "Return From the Crucifixion" (1936), his last signed and dated work, are fascinating in their use of a mixture of oil and tempera that the artist spent years developing, and which produced a thick, enamel-like surface.

* After closing in Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 20, "Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner" will be on view at the Dallas Museum of Art from Sept. 7 through Dec. 31; and at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago from Jan.12 through April 28, 1996.

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