When you think of African American trailblazers in the art world, there are the Jacob Lawrences, Jean Michel-Basquiats and Romare Beardons, ones who spring to mind immediately. Yet, there was one man who inspired these aforementioned gentlemen as well as a generation of many renowned artists, his name, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
You may have seen a Tanner work at some point in your life. His most famous and often revered as his grand opus, “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), a depiction of an older Black man teaching a little boy, perhaps his grandson, to play the banjo, has been reproduced thousands of times and hung in many households symbolizing a slice of African American life post-Civil War. A painter, sculptor and photographer, Tanner is well regarded today as the first African American artist to achieve international acclaim. The subject of a new exhibition, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” a historically poignant timeline at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia PA. The showcase will travel to select museums throughout the US later this year.
Born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1859 and then moved to Philadelphia, PA to a father who was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a mother who was born a slave and then became a well-educated woman bearing seven children; Tanner’s upbringing was privileged for the time. As urbanization and the great plight of Blacks moving from the South to the West and North for hope of a better life challenged many in the turn of the 20th century. Tanner grew up educated with a distinct desire to become an artist. In 1879, at the age of 20, Tanner enrolled into the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia studying under world-renowned painter Thomas Eakins. He became Eakins first African American student. Frustrated by prejudice and limited opportunities in the States, Tanner moved to France, where he lived until his passing in 1937.
Tanner’s brand of art—realism with expressionist undertones, rose to international acclaim in France and many parts of Europe, where his oil paintings were regularly accepted into the museums, awarded prizes and praised by critics, calling his work “modern” and “personal” of his heavily religious and biblical leitmotifs, which is highlighted throughout Modern Spirit. In 1897, he became internationally known when the French government purchased his oil painting, “The Resurrection of Lazarus”. Yet aside from praise abroad, Tanner was not blind to the racial injustice from in the US. Many museums refused to feature Tanner’s work, while his most famous hung in salons in Paris.
Modern Spirit, curated by Anna Marley at PAFA, contains over 100 works, including 12 paintings that have never been featured in a Tanner retrospective and the only two known sculptures that Tanner completed. The exhibition also includes Tanner's “Lazarus”, from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay—a career highlight—which has never crossed the Atlantic until now.
The exhibition manages to display a sublime chronological order of Tanner’s life in work. We see his upstarts painting lush landscapes, a realist turn under Eakin’s influence implicating biblical imagery with a play on light as a supporting character in these works, to his last pieces, recalling his earlier years of painting landscapes coupled with the religious influence he accustomed in his aesthetic as he traveled to Jerusalem. Although the “Banjo Lesson” is not featured, we get a glimpse of Tanner, the man so influenced by his religious upbringing. We witness Tanner recount biblical stories over and over again with “Lazarus”, “The Annunciation” (1898), a tremendous feat of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary as a burst of bright yellow light that fills a room with a sensational glow as he tells her of Jesus’ impending birth, to the “Miraculous Haul of Fishes” (1914) of the famous heave of fish caught by the apostles. It’s pretty clear that like his contemporaries of the time, Rembrandt and Edgar Degas, was keen on blending real life with new methods of pictorial representation, a composition of optical effects of light.
What we are left with is a transcending representation of Tanner’s work—one that is followed upstairs in the Annenberg and Tuttleman Galleries of the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building in the “After Tanner Exhibit”. Contemporary artists such as Laylah Ali, Kara Walker and even works from Romare Beardon and Jacob Lawrence explore identity, cultural conflicts since Tanner’s passing and their channels opened for Black artists in the wake of his career. Touring throughout the exhibition (which is highly recommended) cements Tanner’s legacy on Black artists, rather artists in general today.
“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” runs through April 15 as well as After Tanner: African-American Artists Since 1940 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; (215) 972-7600, pafa.org.The exhibition will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum, from May 26 – September 9, 2012, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, from October 14, 2012 – January 6, 2013.