Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner is an artist that inspires me. Maybe it is because I admire the way that he expressed reverence and spiritual values through his art. Or, maybe I relate to him as a fellow “PK” (preacher’s kid), as both our fathers were ministers who instilled the passion for education and activism. Tanner’s father was A.M.E., and mine, Baptist. Regardless, I am deeply moved by Henry Ossawa Tanner’s life narrative, as well as, the message of his work.

Tanner was born in 1859. In 1879, he enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and was the only black student. At the Academy, he encountered a significant amount of prejudice and cruelty. One night, he was even tied to his easel in the middle of the street. Through it all, he persevered, and graduated from the Academy in 1881. In 1891 he went to Europe in search of artistic direction and freedom, and was accepted into the Academie Julien in Paris. The welcome received from teachers, classmates and Parisians as a whole, had a profound effect on him; and for the first time in his life, he was able to assert himself as an artist without fear or racist reprisal.

Two of my favorite Tanner paintings are, “The Banjo Lesson,” and “The Thankful Poor.” Both represent the type of interactions between African American elders and children that I grew up witnessing. “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), one of his best-known paintings, depicts a sensitive, authentic portrait of a young boy receiving his first banjo lesson from an older man. Both of the subjects are black, and the work bears a sharp contrast to the cruel stereotypes present in most depictions of African-Americans. The painting exhibits Tanner’s mastery of light and color, and presents a very human moment of the inter-generational passing of knowledge. “The Thankful Poor,” also painted in 1893, was a depiction of another inter-generational moment, of a black child and black elder seated at a table in prayer before empty plates and dishes. Both paintings earned Tanner acclaim in the U.S., however, he received significant criticism from black contemporaries as he departed from this “genre” of painting, and focused the latter of his career on mystical depictions of Biblical scenes. The choice to change genres came after much consideration of his career goals and his personal convictions, and in response to the obstacles and prejudices he had overcome in his quest to become an artist.

Tanner was the first American artist of African descent to achieve international recognition for his work. In 1896, his “Daniel In the Lions Den” painting, was accepted into the prestigious Salon in Paris, and won an honorable mention. At the same time, Tanner was admitted into the American Art Club in Paris, which allowed him access to fellow American artists and contacts. The following year, his “Raising of Lazarus” earned him a 3rd place medal in the Salon, and a paid trip to tour the holy sites of Palestine, and other destinations in the Middle East, fulfilling a lifelong dream. International travels deeply inspired his subsequent work. He painted “The Annunciation” in 1898, which stunned Salon audiences and cemented his reputation in Paris as a world-class painter. After being exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Pennsylvania Academy, the piece was eventually sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tanner’s success was disrupted by the outbreak of World War I, which caused him to flee to England, at which time; he became depressed, and was unable to paint. By the end of World War I, artistic tastes and societal values had changed so much that Tanner found himself characterized as old-fashioned and out of vogue in new Paris. His religious artwork had no place in the post-war Europe. By then, however, he started painting again, and had great success in America, which led to gallery representation in New York and numerous exhibition opportunities. Even though Tanner’s work grew in influence in subsequent years, it was largely forgotten during the Great Depression and World War II.

Henry Ossawa Tanner died in 1937; but in 1967, at an exhibition at the City University of New York, critical interest in his work was renewed.

Two quotes by Henry Ossawa Tanner that resonate in my spirit as I view his work, and reflect upon his life are: “I will preach with my brush.” and “My effort has been not only to put the Biblical incident in the original setting… but at the same time give the human touch to convey to my public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner is an artist that inspires me.