In many of my previous blogs I have talked about youngsters, in centuries gone by, who had all the advantages needed to become an artist. They were male and did not have to overcome the barriers females had to hurdle over to become acknowledged painters. They were from wealthy families who could pay for their child’s best artistic tuition. They were part of an artistic family whose parents or siblings could initially tutor them, encourage them and, at the same time, introduce them to their established artist friends. These were great advantages, not having these benefits was a disadvantage for an aspiring painter.
The nineteenth century American artist I am looking at today had one major disadvantage. He was an African American in nineteenth century America where racism was rife, and as such had to overcome problems his white contemporaries did not have to face. He, however, battled on and became the first African American painter to gain international acclaim. Welcome to the world of Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in the city of Pittsburgh on June 21st 1859. His middle name was derived from the Battle of Osawatomie, an armed engagement that occurred on August 30, 1856, between pro- and anti-slavery partisans at the town of Osawatomie, Kansas. He was the eldest of nine children born to Benjamin Tucker Tanner and his wife Sarah Miller Tanner, a private school teacher, who was born into slavery in Virginia but whose mother had enabled her to escape to the North via the Underground Railroad. Tanner’s portrait of his mother in 1897, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, is a dignified depiction of the woman who brought him up. The painting with its deep hues and the large area of dead space adds drama to the painting.
Henry was brought up in a religious setting. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, the first independent black denomination in the United States. He and his family moved frequently due to him being assigned to various parishes. His father was also a political activist for the abolition of slavery. Religion always played an important role in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s life and art.
The family moved from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in 1868 when Henry was nine years old. He attended The Promise Academy at Roberts Vaux High School, for coloured students. named after the American jurist, abolitionist, and philanthropist Roberts Vaux It was a school which encouraged the love of art. He did well at the school and eventually graduated as the valedictorian of his class. The story goes that one day in 1872, thirteen-year-old Henry Ossawa Tanner was walking in the city’s Fairmont Park and came across an artist with his easel painting a landscape. He never forgot this meeting and determined there and then that he too would become an artist. Living in Philadelphia in the summer was a test for everybody. The temperature and the humidity were extremely high and everyday living became onerous. The Tanner family, like many others tried to escape the humid conditions by going to the seaside and experience the cooling Atlantic breeze. Young Henry enjoyed these seaside trips and found plenty of subjects to paint. Some of his sketches were seen by the Philadelphia artists, Henry Price, who offered young Henry a one-year apprenticeship at his Philadelphia studio. It was here that Tanner began to learn about art.
However, his father had other ideas as he was doubtful that a career in art was a suitable occupation for his son. With that in mind he arranged for Henry to start an apprenticeship as a miller in a flour mill. Henry Tanner was a delicate young man whose health was never resilient throughout his life and working in the flour mill proved too strenuous and he became seriously ill. Tanner was confined to his home to recuperate. Much of the time during this period of isolation was spent sketching. Once he had recovered, and was freed from home-based isolation, he would often take trips to Rainbow Lake in the Adirondack Mountains where the air was cleaner. He would also go down to the sunnier and warmer climate of Florida. He was pleased when he could get out of the family house and could not wait to be able to start sketching and painting. Tanner began to paint landscape and seascape scenes.
His artwork must have reached a good standard as at the age of twenty-one, he passed the entrance examination to the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts in 1880. It was here that he received the finest art tuition from the likes of the great American realist painter, Thomas Eakins. The artwork and teachings of Eakins were to have a great influence on Tanner for the rest of his life. He remained a student there, off-and-on, until 1885. Tanner exhibited some of his early works in New York in 1885 and the following year he opened his own studio in Philadelphia. Once again, Henry and his family would often head towards the New Jersey coast in the summer to avoid the stifling heat of Philadelphia. During those hot summer days Henry completed a painting entitled Sand Dunes at Sunset. Over a century later, in 1995, it became the first painting by an African American artist to be acquired by the White House.
Tanner left the Pennsylvania Academy prior to graduating as he wanted to set himself up in business and in 1888 an opportunity arose in Atlanta, Georgia for him to establish his own art and photography gallery. His idea was to set up a modest gallery where he would attempt to earn a semi-artistic living by selling drawings, making photographs, and teaching art classes at the city’s private Methodist, historically black, university Clark Atlanta University. Through Tanner’s connection with the Methodist Church he came in contact with Joseph Crane Hartzell who was an American Missionary Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Joseph Hartzell and his wife became his main white patrons over the next several years. In spite of his efforts, Tanner’s Atlanta studio failed and, in the summer of 1888, Henry sold the business.
Henry Tanner left Atlanta and moved to Highlands, North Carolina, a town in Macon County in North Carolina. The town is located on a high plateau within the larger Blue Ridge Mountains. He had moved there with the idea that he could make some money from his photographs and paintings. He also believed that the clean mountain air would be good for his well-being. After staying at Highlands during the summer of 1888, he returned to Atlanta and taught drawing for two years at Clark Atlanta University. In a conversation Henry Tanner had with Bishop Hartzell and his wife, he told them about his desire to go to Europe and study art in Rome. They believed it to be a good idea and they arranged to have an exhibition of his work at a gallery in Cincinnati in the Autumn of 1890 and from the sale of his work his trip to Europe would be paid for.
The exhibition was held but unfortunately none of Tanner’s paintings sold. He was devastated. However, the bishop and his wife came to his rescue and bought all the paintings ! Henry Tanner now had the funds to travel to Europe. Tanner eventually set sail for Europe in January 1891. He stayed for a short time in Liverpool and London and then travelled to Paris. He was so impressed by the art scene of the French capital. To him, the French artistic world was much more cutting-edged than that of America’s art world, so much so that he abandoned his plans to travel to Rome and put roots down in the French capital. Once settled in Paris, Tanner enrolled in the Académie Julian and studied under Jean-Paul Laurens, a French painter and sculptor, and one of the last major exponents of the French Academic style and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant, a French painter and etcher best known for his Oriental subjects and portraits. He also joined the American Art Students Club of Paris.
In 1893, Tanner went back to the United States to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In this same year, he created one of his famous works The Banjo Lesson while he was in Philadelphia. His depiction incorporated a series of sketches he had made while visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains, four years earlier. The sketches he had made during the summer of 1888 had opened his eyes to the poverty of African Americans living in Appalachia.
The setting is inside a cramped log cabin with the cool glow of a hearth fire casting the scene’s only light source from right corner, enveloping the man and the boy in a rectangular pool of light across the floor. The young boy holds the banjo in both hands. He looks down, completely focused on the task ahead. His grandfather holds the banjo up gently with his left hand so that the boy is not hampered by its weight, yet it is also clear that the grandfather expects the young boy to appreciate the music he is producing although it may be hard work.
When he arrived back in his homeland, he was respected as an artist but despite this recognition and the honours and prizes he received for his art, his paintings were often displayed separately from those of his white colleagues. In 1895 he returned to in Paris, saying that he could not fulfil his artistic aspirations while fighting discrimination in America. Tanner lived over half of the rest of his life in France, saying that he was able to find an expansive and more accepting environment, free from the racial strife which he encountered in America.
In 1894 Tanner completed another memorable work. It was entitled The Thankful Poor. It was an oil painting depicting an elderly black man sitting down to supper with a teenage boy. Their heads are bowed in prayer, thanking The Lord for the food they were about to eat. The table is plain and the food upon it is meagre, but Tanner has captured their thankfulness. Whilst Tanner has painted the two figures in great detail, the rest of the scene, such as the wall and the tablecloth seem to just blend in the light. This warm light which streams through the window onto the wall helps to enrich the spiritual quality of the painting. The bright light shines on the young boy’s face and illuminates the boy’s deliberations, devotion, and gratitude for having food to eat. Look how Tanner has portrayed poverty in the way he depicted the man’s coarse hands and the boy’s scruffy clothes.
Around the mid 1890’s, Henry Tanner strong religious beliefs became more apparent in his works. He was determined that the biblical stories he knew and loved should feature in his artwork. He once said:
“…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…”
Impressionism had been at the height of its popularity in the 1870’s and Tanner was Influenced by colours used by the Impressionists. He was also inspired by the works of the Symbolists. A classic example of his work at the time was his 1896 painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den which won an honourable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896. In this depiction, Daniel is incarcerated in a den of lions. He was being punished for refusing to pray to King Darius of Persia. The late evening light streams through an upper window of his dark prison cell lighting up the lower body of Daniel and highlights his arms crossed on his lap whilst besides him is the exceptionally large head of one of the lions. There is a calmness about the figure of Daniel which underlines his spiritual belief in what he is doing. The shades of blue/green offer us a picture of serenity. The painting, which was the first to be exhibited at the Salon by an African American, was highly praised by the art critics and received international recognition. This was Tanner’s first major religious painting and indicated the direction that his art would take.
The choice of a religious subject may have been inspired initially by his teacher Jean-Paul Laurens, his former tutor at Académie Julian, who was noted for dramatic biblical paintings and who had depicted a similar scene of incarceration in his painting, Le Grand Inquisiteur chez les rois catholiques, a copy of which Tanner had owned. A later version of this painting can be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.
..……to be continued.