Happy Birthday, painter Henry Ossawa Tanner

When I lived in Philadelphia – a million years ago, with my boyfriend who was in law school at U. Penn – I became intimately familiar with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings since so many of them hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and we went to the museum almost every week. Or, at least a couple times a month. It’s such a great museum.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1859, Tanner was the first Black artist to break through into international fame. Although he was educated in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (he enrolled in 1879, and was the only black student), he ended up living for most of his life in Paris. I believe he is buried in Paris. (He was eventually given the Legion of Honor in 1923, France’s highest honor.) Tanner did not have to wait decades for his work to be recognized, he did not die forgotten and then his work was discovered posthumously. He was here to enjoy his success.

While at the Pennsylvania Academy, Tanner met Thomas Eakins who was busy revolutionizing American Art. Eakins saw something in Tanner, recognized his gift, and “took him on” in a powerful mentor relationship. (Tanner eventually painted Eakins’s portrait, one of only a few painters who got the honor). Of course Tanner faced racism every step of the way. He was unwelcome in almost every space he entered – although in France it was a little less restrictive. It had to have taken incredible guts and stick-to-it-iveness to stay the course.

Tanner started, as many painters do, with landscapes.

“View of the Seine looking toward Notre Dame”, 1896

“The Arch” (1919) – I saw this one at the Brooklyn Museum. It may be part of the collection there, Brooklyn-ites, take note.

There are a couple of reasons, though, why his work stands out from his fellow Impressionists. For me, looking at his work as a whole it is a reminder: Bring yourself to your work. Whatever that means. Do your thing, and do it as best you can, but don’t leave yourself out of it, because the only thing that is unique about you is your you-ness. That’s it. Only one of you. So BRING IT. I learned this young, because of pursuing acting. It helps you keep your perspective during cattle-call auditions, where it feels like you’re wandering in a wilderness of hugely talented people (and this is TRUE). All you can do is believe in yourself and that your unique-ness has value and that someone will want it, and if others DON’T want it, oh well, someone else will. SO. Tanner began painting small homey scenes showing people of color living their lives, doing simple activities, like praying before dinner, etc. This shattered stereotypes of depictions of black life. Even saying that is an understatement. Basically what Tanner was doing hadn’t existed in American art before he came along – at least not to the level at which he was doing it. He had an international reputation (mostly because of his later religious paintings, which I’ll get to in a second). He was famous. His paintings went around the world, under-cutting the racist depictions of black Americans for a very wide audience.

His most famous painting, to this day, is “The Banjo Lesson”.

“The Banjo Lesson” (1893)

The painting is very beautiful, but it’s also revolutionary, in a quiet insistent way. Most importantly, the painting challenges the minstrel context inherent in banjos, etc. The normal context of banjos in the racist context is a black man performing, being a clown, being happy with entertaining others. Tanner’s painting, however, shows a tender inter-generational scene, connoting continuity and family bonds – and – even more important – brings up questions/contemplations that go far beyond what is portrayed: had the father or maybe grandfather been a slave? Considering the year “The Banjo Lesson” was painted: Most probably he was. What we see here, then, is a man – who is poor, who lives in humble conditions, etc. – but he is free, he is a man free enough to have a little bit of leisure time to spend passing on to his grandson how to play the banjo.

One thing about Tanner’s use of light: Tanner’s work features so many instances of different light sources coming into shadows or hitting black skin, light pouring in from different quadrants. Tanner’s use of light is quite intricate. My boyfriend and I used to look at his paintings and try to figure out the light sources. Look closely at “The Banjo Lesson” and try to track where all the light is coming from. Because it’s not just from one place.

Later, Tanner moved into religious territory. Many of his religious paintings could also be classified as landscape paintings, and so it makes you think about the religious stories depicted in different ways. He’s giving you a different perspective, an Impressionistic and non-literal perspective, on a very familiar story. Like here: “The Good Shepherd”:

Isn’t that just stunning?

Two more:

He did many paintings of Mary, and all of them are haunting, beautiful, moody, with deep rich colors. His work makes you re-think Mary. Like here:

And the gorgeous “Flight Into Egypt”:

I am leaving the best for last: Tanner’s painting called “The Annunciation.”

“The Annunciation” is quite literally overwhelming when you see it in person.

Look at how far beyond the normal edge of symbolic allegorical painting Tanner had gone! Seek out “The Annunciation” if you’re ever in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’ll take your breath away. I seriously gasped the first time I saw it.

Tanner died in Paris in 1937. Happy birthday to this pioneer.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, painter Henry Ossawa Tanner

  1. He is my favorite artist! There was an exhibition of his paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum a few years ago, and while I agree that The Annunciation is amazing (that LIGHT), Flight Into Egypt is where it’s at for me. I’ve never seen a print or reproduction that was able to capture the gorgeous blue of the sky background or the moonlight that seems to shine out of the painting. Seeing it in person took my breath away.

    • sheila says:

      Hello, Cassandra – thank you for the reminder and so glad to see you here!

      So glad to hear your thoughts! It’s interesting you say about the reproductions not being able to capture his colors/light – when you try to do this stuff via Google it becomes immediately apparent that people have “futzed” with the colors – so you’re looking at the same image but with varying brighteness/saturation – it’s very frustrating. For a post like this I want the ORIGINAL.

      and now I need to go look up Flight Into Egypt. I’m sure I’ve seen that one.

      • sheila says:

        oh gosh, yes, of course – Flight Into Egypt – now I remember. I got goosebumps all over just now when the image came up. Those BLUES – the lantern light – the placement of the figures – how crowded in they are … he just makes you SEE these famous stories in a whole other way.

  2. Thanks for this discovery…My only visit to the Philly art museum was in the late 80’s and I confess my main memory is of their collection of medieval weapons and armor. If I ever get back I’ll make it a point to spend time with this artist! From other experiences I certainly know there’s no substitute for seeing art in person. Any art, but especially paintings.

    • sheila says:

      You’re right – Philadelphia does have an amazing collection of medieval stuff! I hadn’t even remembered that until you said it. and IIRC the main hall entrance area has a medieval tapestry on the wall that has to be two or three stories high!

      and yes, keep your eyes peeled for museums near that who might do Tanner retrospectives!

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