Home >

Art Exhibit Review

Henry Ossawa Tanner
Makes Every Man a Brother

by Steven Carr

March 2012

“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit”
January 28, 2012 -
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in
Philadelphia


View full size

Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by his teacher, Thomas Eakins, 1900.

March 16, 2012 —The opening of the exhibit, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” on January 28, saw the largest weekend attendance ever recorded at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Tanner (1859-1937), despite his shy and modest nature, was the first African-American artist to achieve international acclaim. His world was being divided with America’s Civil War and Jim Crow laws, and then the 1885 agreement by European empires to slice-up and colonize Africa. However, Tanner’s consistent message was never to cross an arbitrary “color line,” but to eliminate it. Like Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (later set by Beethoven in his great Chorale for the 9th Symphony), Tanner’s mission was to make “every man a brother,” and in his most successful compositions, his audience always identifies with the humanity in his subjects—regardless of their social standing. (Tanner’s actually quoted from Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida,” saying that he wanted to “give the human touch which makes the whole world kin.”)

Tanner’s refusal to be defined by race caused great controversy at the time. Howard University’s African American Prof. Alain Locke attacked him for not being black enough, demanding that he create a “Negro” style of art to explore its “ancestral legacy.” Other critics, such as the white poet Eunice Tietjens, wrote that Tanner and other “warm-blooded people were more at home with warmer tonalities” while the “cold end of the spectrum, the violets, blues, and cold greens, belong naturally to the Anglo-Saxon.” Tanner was never afraid to experiment with many artistic styles, techniques, and materials. However, he would judge all art—even his own—by the rigorous standards of great Classical art. He especially found inspiration from his favorites, Rembrandt (1606-1669), Velázquez (1599-1660), and his teacher, the Philadelphian Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).

Born in the Underground Railroad

Tanner was born in a station of the Underground Railroad on Pittsburgh’s “North Side,” and when he was seven, the family moved to Philadelphia. While walking through Fairmount Park with his father at age 13, the two came across a landscape artist, and on the spot, Henry decided that he wanted to be a painter. That evening he convinced his mother to give him 15 cents to buy some paint and brushes, and he began his career. The next morning he returned to that exact location in the park to try to capture the same landscape that he saw being created.

He had trouble trying to find a teacher who would accept a black student, until he met Thomas Eakins in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Eakins, a former medical student, had a scientific approach to art that was similar to a surgeon examining a patient; he not only became Tanner’s teacher and mentor, but also a lifelong friend. Tanner found that the intense racism in America inhibited his work, so he moved to Paris in 1891. However, despite his ill-treatment in America, he always loved his country, and during World War I, at age 58, he joined the American Red Cross to help American soldiers in battle-torn France.

Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835-1923) became a bishop in the AME Church and served as the national church liaison to Congress in the months leading-up to the Civil War. Tanner Sr. graduated from Avery College, where he studied a Classical curriculum, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and dedicated his life to learning. Despite segregation, Benjamin Tanner attended many lectures and was a regular at Shakespeare plays. At one event, a U.S. deputy marshal tried to move him to the “colored section,” but Benjamin sued him for assault and battery.

While living in Washington, Benjamin established a school for blacks at the Navy Yard. During the Civil War, the elder Tanner followed advancing Union troops to establish schools for former slaves in the newly liberated territories. After the Civil War, he was transferred to church headquarters in Philadelphia, where the family home became the intellectual center of the black community. Benjamin Tanner became the editor of the national church newspaper and began to use it to not only address theological issues, but also, political and social issues. (It seems that Tanner never passed-up a chance to attack Charles Darwin as the granddaddy of modern racism).

Henry Tanner’s mother, Sarah Miller Tanner was born a slave, but also would become a teacher, and had a reputation for helping people who lived on the margins of society. Henry’s sister, Halle, became one of the first female African-American medical doctors and started the nursing school at Tuskegee.

The Banjo Lesson


View full size

The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner,1893.

Thirty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Henry Tanner was asked to speak to the “Congress on Africa” at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago about “The Negro in American Art.” This event put him in direct contact with much of the African-American leadership of the period, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington (already a friend of the family), and the young poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although living in France at the time, Tanner delivered a speech, revealing great insight into the best way to intervene into America’s racist culture. Tanner wanted to counter the popular image of the humiliating, sub-human, and often derisive caricatures of blacks that were so commonly circulated at the time. Tanner would directly take on the stereotypical cliché of blacks and music. (It should be noted that simple rhythms were considered acceptable for blacks, but images of blacks reading, thinking, or educating their children were off limits).

Soon after this Chicago event, while recovering from typhoid fever, Tanner began work on what would become his iconic painting, “The Banjo Lesson.” Unfortunately this painting is not included in this exhibit, however, it is such an important painting and the year 1893 was so crucial to Tanner's development, that we must discuss it here. He first staged a photograph in his studio with two models holding a cardboard cutout of a banjo. This was for a request to make an illustration for the children’s magazine, Harper’s Young People. Later, in his painted version, Tanner changed the lighting, the viewpoint, the focus, and most importantly, the message. The painting invites the viewer to identify with the humanity of the characters, a completely new image of blacks for much of his middle-class American audience.

This is not mere “book learning”; Tanner depicts the transmission of human culture from one generation to the next—the very action of immortality. This is the characteristic that unites all human beings, across cultures and times.

Tanner zooms in on the action from above eye-level, and gives us only a few items in this humble domestic scene, just enough to establish depth and volume to the painting, without causing distraction by too many details. It is the interaction between the old man and the young boy that draws us in, while the “banjo lesson” is a subsumed feature of that relationship. A cool white light from an open window or door on the left, and a warm glow from the fireplace on the right, illuminate the scene, creating a halo-effect around the two figures.

The Resurrection of Lazarus


View full size

The Resurrection of Lazarus by Henry Ossawa Tanner,1896.

In his effort to unite all of humanity, Tanner considered his religious paintings to be his most important. The viewer becomes engaged in an historic moment where the fate of humanity is at stake. In his childhood, Tanner, the son of a bishop, heard many biblical stories of enslavement and persecution, and naturally viewed the current issues of social justice through this religious lens.

Tanner thought that much of the religious art of the period was second-rate, and sometimes even “bogus,” often being produced by artists who were merely hoping for a quick sale. Still others, he called “biblical archaeologists” who could fill vast canvases with detailed renderings of the buildings and topology of the Holy Lands, but had no message. To paint his “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” Tanner looked to the great Classical painters for guidance.

Rembrandt did one painting and two etchings of the Resurrection of Lazarus, but it is possible that Tanner never saw them. However, many scholars believe that Tanner was inspired by other Rembrandt works, including his “Christ at Emmaus.” Tanner also drew upon works by Rembrandt’s Spanish contemporary, Velázquez. (It is said that Tanner was interested in Velázquez, not only because his teacher, Eakins spoke of him often, but also because Tanner was intrigued to learn that Velázquez freed his slave, Juan de Pareja, also an accomplished painter, of whom Velázquez painted a famous portrait.) Some view the Christ in Tanner’s painting as a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln, the “redeemer of souls in bondage.”

Often, depictions of the Resurrection of Lazarus, place Christ in the center of the painting, as he is about to perform one of the greatest miracles of the New Testament. However, Tanner captures the scene as Lazarus slowly begins to move. Tanner is more interested in how this historic moment has transformed the crowd of onlookers. He shows every type of reaction—shock, horror, disbelief, etc.—but most of all, Tanner hopes that you see a man in the back (to the left of the tall black man with a turban). This man is not looking at Christ or Lazarus, but rather has engaged you, the viewer, with an intense stare. He is confirming that you also are present, and have just witnessed this historic event.

This painting would put Tanner on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Soon, the French government would purchase it, and now, for the first time ever, this masterpiece is on American soil.

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures


View full size

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures by Henry Ossawa Tanner,1910.

There is a long tradition of tender paintings of the Madonna and Child in Western art; Tanner adopted the subject to present another domestic scene of education. His "religious" painting is not from any particular Biblical story, but is rather a very everyday type of human activity, and he even used his wife, Jessie, and his son, Jesse (at age 8 or 9) as models. Tanner demonstrates his considerable compositional skills, while he is less rigorous in showing depth. Tanner was effective in bringing his characters to life using light. He often used thin, almost translucent layers of paint over thicker layers to give the illusion that light originates from inside the painting, since light could penetrate several layers into the painting before being reflected back to the viewer.

The exhibit will be presented in the following cities:

Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (pafa.org) Jan. 28 to April 15, 2012;

Cincinnati Art Museum (cincinnatiartmuseum.org) May 26 to Sept. 9, 2012;

Houston Museum of Fine Arts, (mfah.org) Oct. 21, 2012 to Jan. 13, 2013.