A Painter Honored in His Own Country

THE annals of American art are filled with examples of artists who achieved renown in their lifetimes, but whose reputations, for a variety of reasons, faded when they died. No story is more poignant than that of Henry Ossawa Tanner, a gifted black painter who grew up in Philadelphia, but who, to escape discrimination, spent his career as an expatriate in France. Once famed on both sides of the Atlantic, Tanner is in the process of being rescued from a half-century in artistic limbo. A highly acclaimed exhibition of his works in the City of Brotherly Love suggests that at long last an artist can be judged on the merit of his work, not the color of his skin. Perhaps a long overdue vindication is at hand for Tanner, a craftsman of conviction and exceptional gifts, who is one of our major underappreciated painters.

The son of a minister who became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, Tanner (1859-1937) studied under the distinguished painter Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and started out painting conventional sea scenes and studies of animals. In his 30s, Tanner produced several pictures which presented blacks in a sympathetic light, in contrast to the work of contemporary white artists who often portrayed blacks in disparaging or comical stereotypes.

``The Banjo Lesson'' (1893), which Darrel Sewell, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of American art, calls ``absolutely the greatest American black genre work,'' depicts a gray-haired African-American patiently showing a young boy how to play the musical instrument. Surrounded by the glow of an unseen hearth fire in a humble cabin, it is an unforgettable study of bonding and old age and youth. The painting is imbued with a realism tempered by sensitivity that must have made Thomas Eakins proud.

Some contemporaries thought Tanner's human, dignified genre paintings would launch a movement for positive images of black life, but his personality and the social climate of the country were not conducive to such an effort. Paintings about black subjects were not very salable in the late 19th century, even work as outstanding as Tanner's. Finding that his race inhibited his progress as an artist and concluding that he could ``not fight prejudice and paint at the same time,'' Tanner settled permanently in France in the 1890s, with occasional visits to the United States.

In Paris, Tanner joined many of his white American contemporaries in enrolling at the Acad'emie Julian, where he continued his training in academic disciplines.

Spending summers in Brittany experimenting with outdoor painting, his brushwork soon became looser and his handling of light and color bolder, reflecting the influence of Impressionism. While he retained throughout his career his personal vision and distinctive style, Tanner clearly sought the approbation of the white establishment, which dictated success or failure in the art world of his day. His tickets to fame and fortune were the prestigious Paris Salons, where his pleasant scenes of the French countryside garnered awards and sold well.

Devout by upbringing and nature, Tanner found his greatest inspiration in religious subjects, and toward the turn of the century he began painting luminous, moving recreations of Biblical episodes filled with mysterious, evocative light. They generated wide respect and made him an international superstar. In 1897, he took the first of several extended trips to the Holy Land, which stimulated him to paint both local scenes and religious canvases in their original settings.

While his later work included landscapes, portraits, and scenes of the front during World War I, Tanner is justly celebrated for the originality, deep feeling, human dignity, and profound insights with which he endowed his religious canvases.

``My effort,'' he said, ``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.'' His religious paintings were also created with the same care as ``less holy subjects,'' reflecting his determination 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. They demonstrate why Tanner is one of the few successful 20th-century exponents of religious art.

In ``The Annunciation,'' a large and compelling picture, he depicted Mary as a simple, winsome woman, awed by the presence of the angel, which has the form of a blinding shaft of light. The play of moonlight and shadow give an ethereal aura to ``Nicodemus Visiting Jesus.'' Fabulous blues and blue-greens add to the originality and impact of ``The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water.'' In ``Daniel in the Lions' Den,'' the perilous situation confronting the isolated prophet is underscored by the shadowy, restlessly pacing beasts who surround him.

Some black art historians suggest that Tanner's obsession with the flight into Egypt, which he painted over a dozen times, dealing with persecution and the search for freedom and a better life, reflected the artist's concern about the plight of his fellow blacks. Similarly, some speculate that ``The Resurrection of Lazarus,'' capturing the moment when Lazarus stirs to life, was suggested by Tanner's concern about the trials and aspirations of black Americans.

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 and provide a firsthand example for African-American artists. But Tanner, while recognizing and abhorring injustices in the US and a supporter of such causes as the NAACP, was genuinely dedicated to his pursuit of high art. He felt he could not fulfill his artistic potential while combating discrimination.

His stand enraged some black leaders, but most came to understand the sincerity of his convictions. They appreciated that as the first black painter to win international renown he provided inspiration for future black artists, even from afar.

A man of independent mind and vision, Tanner was no artistic experimenter. He shunned post-Impressionism and the abstract movements which blossomed in his day, choosing to go his own way. Nevertheless, he was enthusiastically acclaimed by French critics and public, and his lasting contributions were recognized by the French government in 1923 when he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

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 after his death. It was the American civil-rights movement, along with increased interest in the cultural achievements of black Americans, which rescued him from artistic obscurity in recent decades.

For new generations of art lovers, Tanner emerges as a painter of enormous skill and fertile imagination, who imbued his canvases with a passionate, personal, and mysterious feeling. His storm-tossed skies, evocative landscapes, vivid Biblical tales, and touching genre scenes are sure to haunt the memory of all who view them. Tanner's art truly belongs to the whole nation.

Suggesting that at last the prophet is with honor in his own country, the City of Brotherly Love is according Henry Ossawa Tanner the kind of appreciation history has denied him.

The positive response of art critics indicates that the art world may not be far behind. In the hindsight of history, the evidence demonstrates that Tanner was not only our first major black artist, but belongs in the front ranks of all American painters.

``Henry Ossawa Tanner,'' a show that includes over 100 of Tanner's works, will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 14. The exhibition will travel to The Detroit Institute of Arts (May 12-Aug. 4); High Museum of Art, Atlanta (Sept. 17-Nov. 24); and M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (Dec. 14-March 1, 1992).

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