Sunday, July 15, 2012

Henry Ossawa Tanner - A remarkable artist

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Paris, 1907
It is probably impossible to choose one's absolute favorite artist, writer, or musician.  So much stunningly creative work lies before us from which to choose; each painting, novel, or song creating a world and vision so unique and beautiful that the mind demurs when asked to definitively prioritize.

That being said, I have favorites, people whose creative power is such that I am awestruck and smitten to the core.  Henry Ossawa Tanner's work does this to me:  it is beauty of the very first order, transcending time and place.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born on June 21, 1859 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, the first of nine children born to Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner and Benjamin Tucker Tanner.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Thomas Eakins, 1897

Henry's mother had been born into slavery, escaping to freedom through the Underground Railroad, and later working as a teacher.  His father was an editor, author, and Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Both parents were well educated, and the Tanner home was religious and prosperous.

Both parents were also strong supporters of civil rights.  In fact, Tanner's middle name "Ossawa" alluded to the nickname the fierce abolitionist John Brown earned for defending the free soil of Osawatomie, Kansas against pro-slavery forces.

When Tanner was thirteen, the family
relocated to Philadelphia.  By this point,
Henry was already avidly drawn to artistic expression.  A few years later, the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition wowed the country.

Portrait of the artist's father, 1897

The Centennial art exhibits were housed in the newly-built beaux arts Memorial Hall. There, Tanner was exposed to the artistic visions of many different people and lands.  The paintings, sculptures, drawings and other creative displays deeply intensified Tanner's determination to be an artist.

Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner (see his portrait, left, painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1897) was not impressed with his son's goals, however, and hoped that Henry would follow his footsteps into a religious vocation.

In an effort to dissuade his son from pursuing what he regarded as an inappropriate career and in the hopes of instilling in him an appreciation for "real work", Bishop Tanner got Henry an apprenticeship at a local flour mill.  This attempt back-fired, however.  Henry's delicate health suffered as a result of the hard physical labor.  It became clear to all, including his father, that Henry's career would have to be less physically demanding.
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, 1885

The Tanners spent time along the coast of New Jersey now and then, to escape the summer heat in Philadelphia.  There, Henry painted Sand Dunes at Sunset, shown right.  In 1995, this was the first painting by an African-American artist to be  acquired by the White House.

Henry Ossawa Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1880, backed by his father, albeit reluctantly.  There, he studied under Thomas Eakins (1884-1916).   See the marvelous Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by Eakins, above right.

Portrait of the artist's Mother, oil on canvas, H.O. Tanner, 1897

Eakins influenced Tanner's developing style, as well as deepening his determination to devote his life to art.   The influence of Eakins is visible in many of Tanner's paintings. However, despite Tanner's passionate talent, and despite the support of his good friend Eakins, Tanner left the academy before graduating.

Henry moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1888.  He opened a small photography gallery, and explored photography himself.  He also taught drawing classes at Clark College, a new school with an African-American student body.

However, despite his best efforts, Tanner struggled financially, and was barely able to support himself.  During this time, however, he gained the admiration and support of Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzel, who became his patrons.

That summer, Tanner was able to sell his little business, and moved to Highlands, North Carolina, a town in the Great Smoky Mountains.  The sweeping vistas and the local residents, especially those of African descent, provided creative inspiration for Tanner's photography and for later paintings, while the clear mountain air improved his health.

The Banjo Lesson, H.O. Tanner, 1893
In 1890, Tanner held an exhibition in Cincinnati, arranged with the help of his friend and mentor, Joseph Hartzel.  Hartzel ended up purchasing Tanner's entire exhibition, providing Henry with the means to travel and to further his artistic education abroad, long a dream.

After traveling through Europe, Henry made his way to France.  Beautiful Paris, with it's liberal, artistic nature and cosmopolitan air must have felt wonderfully freeing to Tanner.  He settled there, and began studying with Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) and Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), both well respected painters, at the Académie Julien.

Henry worked hard, perfecting the equivalent of scales on a piano, duplicating classical painting techniques and rendering many figure studies.  His own personal style and techniques continued to develop.

In 1893, suffering from ill health (this time, recuperating from thyphoid fever),  Henry returned to the United States for a visit.  There, he delivered a paper on black artists at the Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair.

While in the United States, he completed The Banjo Lesson, which caused a stir, and which has remained one of his best-known works.  The Thankful Poor was completed in 1894.  These paintings depicted black people in a deep, emotional, and spiritual light. 

The Thankful Poor, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894.  A stunning and deeply emotional painting.
Tanner returned to France, and except for brief visits, did not live in the United States again.  He felt freer in Europe, able to be acknowledged as a man and an artist, rather than being instantly and narrowly defined by his complexion (which was, incidentally, very fair; both parents had white as well as black ancestry).  In France, Tanner felt he could breathe, work, and be judged on his merits, without the relentless burden of racism he encountered in his home country.

Daniel in the Lion's Den, oil on canvas, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1907-1918
Tanner was deeply influenced by his religious upbringing.  Biblical themes began to dominate his work.  His sensitive, expressive, luminous paintings attracted Rodman Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store magnate.  Wanamaker's patronage enabled Henry to travel to the Holy Land, an inspirational trip.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, H.O. Tanner
Henry met Jessie Macauley Olssen, a Swedish-American opera singer from San Francisco, in 1898.  They married the following year in London, then made Paris their home.  In 1903, the couple was blessed with a son, Jesse Ossawa.

In 1908, American Art Galleries in New York exhibited a solo show of Tanner's religious paintings.
When the First World War erupted, Tanner joined the American Red Cross, serving in France.  For this humanitarian work, and in recognition of his international fame as an artist, the government of France awarded Henry the prestigious Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

In 1927, Tanner was inducted as a full member in the National Academy of Design, the first African American to be so honored.
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898.  This is one of my very favorite paintings of all time.  The fierce, luminous, burning angel, and the deep humility of young Mary, could only have been painted by someone with a deep, direct, and very personal experience of spiritual mystery. It is, simply, extraordinary. 

Henry Ossawa Tanner died at home in Paris on May 25, 1937, having fulfilled his promise to "preach with his brush".  In 1969, a major solo exhibition of his work was exhibited by the Smithsonian.  Tanner's fame continues to grow, and his deep spirituality and mastery of technique continue to influence new generations.

Thanks again to my kind readers!

All the best,

Dara Anzlowar
A beautiful Sunday in mid-July

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  1. Thank you for sharing that. I, honestly was unfamiliar with his works, and look forward to looking around to see more of them.. Very great artist! A title I five to few in the modern age.
    Rev Steven

  2. Hi Rev. Steven,
    Tanner was an astonishing talent, and a very courageous person.
    It always takes courage to really be an artist, but he took it all a step beyond. I never tire of his work. Thank you for your comments!

    All the best,



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