American Artist friends recently asked if I had heard of Henry Ossawa Tanner. I hadn't, but curious to know more I quickly discovered a very fine artist.
From what I learnt it's apparent that the most determining move that Henry Tanner made was to leave the USA for Europe in order to develop his work unhindered by the US racial pressures and restrictions of his epoch. In fact before he left the USA for Europe he stated, "I cannot fight prejudice and paint".
Henry Ossawa Tanner was to become a unique reference, winning international esteem as a highly competent artist by the turn of the century.
Sarah Tanner, a former slave, gave birth to Henry in Pittsburgh (1859). His father, Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a reputable intellectual of the 19th century Afro-American community. Bishop Tanner was the principal of the AME Conference School for Freedman in Frederick as well as the pastor for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore.
When the family moved to Philadelphia, Henry was to become the pupil of the American artist, Thomas Eakins, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was in fact the first full time Afro-American student at the Academy. It's interesting to note that Eakins also introduced Tanner to photography. This also shows in his work in a very mature way. Indeed Tanner began his professional career by setting up a studio of photography in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as teaching drawing at Clark University. It was during his travels in North Carolina that he made sketches and photographs of poor, rural Afro-Americans. From this visual reference he was later able to produce works such as The Banjo Lesson (completed in 1893).
As with the case of The Banjo Lesson, Tanner's works were carried out later from such photo reference, perhaps colour notes and visual memory. What seems apparent in Tanner's work is his awareness of photo-distortion. At a period when photography must have had such an impact, was perhaps still naively considered the reflection of reality, and was even thought by some to herald the end of certain visual arts, it's much to Tanner's credit that he never allowed photography to dominate his work. For him it was a tool, a means to an end, which considering how revolutionary photography must then have been, shows how positively ahead of his time, and how great a visionary artist Tanner was.
This recollection he made in 1909 would support the assumption that he had an excellent visual memory : "After school, I would often go down on Chestnut Street, to see the pictures in Earle's Galleries. After drinking my fill of these art wonders, l would hurry home and paint what I had seen, and what fun it was."
He left the USA for Paris in 1891 and studied under Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian from 1892. A year later however, he was stricken with typhoid fever and had to return to the States. After fully recovering he was able to return to Paris In 1894. From then on he exhibited almost annually at the French Salon.
His father's religious influence would also have contributed in deciding Tanner to travel to Egypt, Palestine and Italy, (1896) and to begin producing the religious subjects and oriental scenes for which he is also known.
One of his large biblical scenes, The Resurrection of Lazarus, was bought for the national collection of France by the Musée du Luxembourg, a great honour indeed for an American artist. In fact Tanner became a model for future generations of American artists, and certainly for Afro-American artists.
In 1899 Tanner married a white singer from San Francisco. Jessie Macauley Olssen had also been his model for The Annunciation (1898). After their marriage in London they settled in France where their son Jesse was born.
The First World War must have had a terribly negative effect on Tanner. As he drove an ambulance for a period during those atrocious years in France, he would have been among the first to witness the horrific physical ravage caused by machine gun fire, mustard-gas and heavy artillery.
In spite of the war he deservedly gained international recognition. This was superbly demonstrated by his being awarded the highly coveted Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1923 by the French government.
Two years later however, he was to experience the sadness of losing his wife who apparently died in her sleep. This contributed to his son suffering from a nervous breakdown.
The economic depression, health problems and the new wave exigencies of 'modern art' in Europe and the USA further discouraged him from continuing to paint.
He died peacefully on May 25, 1937 in his home in Paris at the age of seventy-eight.