The year is 1897, and Henry Tanner’s painting, The Resurrection of Lazarus, was exhibited at the Salon where it received a third-class medal. The work remains one of Tanner’s most treasured and familiar works. The depiction of the biblical story is realistic and lacks sentimentality and is characteristic of Tanner’s religious work and with his fascination with rebirth and deliverance. The French government purchased the painting for the Musée du Luxembourg. Later it was displayed at the Louvre, and since 1980, it can be found in the Musée d’Orsay.
After Tanner’s move to Paris his artwork tended to focus mainly on religious art and less about depictions of his African American countrymen. Now that he had become a famous artist, there was a certain amount of pressure brought to bear on him to bring attention to the predicament of black people in America and for him to speak out about how racism had blighted their lives. Tanner was a deeply religious person but shied away from politics maintaining he chose to allow his work to make his point about racial equality.
Henry also depicted the famous biblical scene, much favoured by artists, of the resurrected Christ’s meeting with two of his disciples, Luke and Cleopas, at Emmaus. Tanner’s 1905 work was entitled Les pélerins d’Emmaüs (The Pilgrims of Emmaus). This painting is also part of the Musée d’Orsay collection.
In 1899, Henry Tanner did the inconceivable. He married a white woman. His wife was an American opera singer from San Francisco, Jessie Macauley Olssen. They had first met in Barbizon and she had often acted as his model. The couple went on to have their only child, Jesse, who was born in 1903.
Above is a photograph of a family get-together in Paris. According to a note on the back of the photo the group was, from left to right, Jesse, their five-year-old son, Henry’s wife, Jessie Tanner, a fellow ex-pat American artist, Myron Barlow, and Henry himself.
Henry completed a portrait of his wife around the time of their betrothal and is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In this portrait, Jessie Tanner is shown in a highly studied pose which is intended to look informal and nonchalant. Tanner put a lot of time in depicting the details of her face in comparison to the almost “unfinished” look of her dress.
Tanner’s 1900 painting Salome is an Impressionistic-style work in which Tanner used sombre blues, greys, and blacks. It is a realistic depiction of the woman. There is no attempt to idealise her. It is an unusual and yet striking depiction of the biblical character and was typical of work which made Tanner the most famous and well-regarded artist of his time. The painting is housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. It is thought that Tanner’s wife modelled for this 1900 painting
Many of Tanner’s subjects are based on his studies of African Americans from Georgia and North Carolina, the men, and women he encountered while traveling in the Middle East and North Africa in 1897 and 1898. and also, of his Caucasian wife, Jessie. She and their seven-year-old son Jesse posed for a photograph which Tanner would use for his 1909 painting, Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures which belongs to the Dallas Museum of Art. In the painting, we see the figures of Christ and her son engaged in a private moment of reading together. She has her hand wrapped around her son’s waist as they each hold the scroll from which they are studying. It is a painting exuding the tenderness of a mother and her son. This physical bond we see before us is also a recognition of their spiritual unity.
Henry Ossawa Tanner has used a restricted palette of shades of blue, purple, with gold, bathing the figures in a warm, golden light. This illumination emanating from the scroll is a metaphor for the illumination gleaned from the words of the scroll. The existence of the photograph is proof that Tanner used his wife and son as models for Mary and Jesus. This being so gives the work a double meaning, firstly, a contemplative biblical scene and secondly a loving family portrait.
Several years after, (around 1914), Tanner completed another painting remarkably similar to his 1909 work, Christ, and His Mother Studying the Scriptures. This time the title was Christ Learning to Read which is housed in the Des Moines Art Centre. In the Des Moines painting, brilliant colour, dramatic light, and deep shadows replace the Tonalist restraint of Tanner’s earlier work. The background is lighter and the design of the rug on the floor is more detailed. The depiction is less about spirituality and more about Christ’s early childhood with his mother.
Booker T. Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to multiple presidents of the United States and, between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community and of the contemporary black elite. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. In 1899, he published an article on Henry Ossawa Tanner. The publication of this article played a significant role in securing the artist an important position in the art world of America.
La Sainte Marie is a very strange depiction of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Mary appears melancholy and lost in thought. The infant, who is lying on the floor, is almost completely covered by a shroud-like cloth, possibly suggesting a foreshadowing of his death. Tanner was painstaking when it came to detail and took back home with him sketches which he had made whilst in Jerusalem, where he first travelled in 1898. Tanner’s style is academic and is distinctive for his use of luminous lighting. The model for the depiction of Mary was again Tanner’s newlywed Swedish-American wife.
Whilst living in Paris, Tanner had met Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, a fellow American expatriate living in Paris, who—like his father, the department store magnate John Wanamaker—was a major patron of contemporary religious art. He was a patron of many important commissions in the field of liturgical arts. He was very impressed with Tanner’s religious paintings so much so that in 1897 he arranged for the artist to travel to Palestine for inspiration. According to Wanamaker any artist who wanted to depict believable biblical scenes should acquaint themselves with the Holy Land and then, from that encounter, he believed Tanner would be able to remind himself of the different shades of blue that can be seen in the twilight sky of Jerusalem and along the hills of Bethlehem. Tanner left Paris in January 1897 and journeyed south through France by train to the port of Marseilles, where he boarded a ship to Cairo. From Cairo, he travelled to Port Said, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Dead Sea, returning to Alexandria and sailing back to Europe through Naples. He spent just over two months in the Middle East, but the sketches he made during this trip would be used in his religious paintings for years to come.
During the time Tanner spent in Cairo, he visited a number of mosques. One of these featured in his 1897 painting, The setting for the painting, Interior of a Mosque, Cairo was the madrasa of Sultan Qaitbey, a Mamluk-dynasty complex originally containing a mosque, a school, and a mausoleum, built between 1472 and 1475. This mosque has long been held as one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture in Cairo. The mosque of Qaitbey is famous for its coloured and cut marble, geometric patterning, and decorative tile. Tanner’s painting portrays it as an ageless place of faith and mystery. We are looking at the eastern end of the interior, where the mihrab, a semi-circular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, which is the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims, should face when praying. Tanner has made a careful choice of view, one which is angled so as to highlight the curved arches and intricate marble patterning on two sides of the building. Light streams through the stained-glass windows onto the floor. To the left we can make out the minbar, an elaborately carved wooden pulpit in the mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons. Two robed figures face east, engaged in their devotions. Tanner brought the completed work back with him to France.
Tanner returned to Palestine, a year later, for a further six months of sketching and painting. During the latter stay he came to Khirbet es-Sibte on the Plain of Mamre and came across the great oak venerated by some as the Oak of Abraham. According to the bible, (Genesis 13), it was beneath this tree that Abram (not yet Abraham) pitched a tent and built an altar to the Lord of Israel after God’s promise of the land of Canaan to him and his offsprings. Whilst Tanner was there, he too pitched his tent on the Mamre Plain and I wonder if he drew the parallel of himself and Abraham. The biblical figure’s lifetime of wanderings and Tanner, who left America and went to live in France where conditions allowed him to work and live relatively free of the widespread and overpowering racism of his own native country and, like Abraham, he too wanted to start a new life. For Tanner it was Paris, for Abraham it was Canaan. It was almost seven years later that Henry Tanner produced a painting which he looked upon as a souvenir from his Holy Land travels. The painting is entitled Abraham’s Oak. In his depiction, the ancient tree looms large over the scene. It is not just any tree. It is strong, solemn, and gigantic. The aged tree has one of its massive limbs on the left seemingly supported by two struts. The tree is almost withered, almost bare, with the exception of a few leaves sprouting from the end of its mighty limbs. Tanner has used his customary nocturnal blue-grey palette to depict the thick, dim nigh time air broken only by the hazy glow of the moon.
Some time in the first decade of the twentieth century, Henry Tanner and his wife and son had moved out of Paris and made their home in Etaples, a fishing commune on the Canche river in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France, fifty miles from the Franco-Belgium border. However, the fighting during the First World had moved perilously close to Tanner’s home and so he uprooted his family and hastily moved them to England. During his latter years Tanner received many honours for his art. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in America and made an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour in France. Although Tanner remained active until 1936, he refused to change his artistic style and refused to follow the period’s artistic innovations. The taste in art changed in the twentieth century. Modernism became fashionable and so the realism of Tanner’s art became old-fashioned. He remained steadfast in his resistance to becoming a spokesman for racial issues, once again maintaining he wanted to put all his energy into his art. Despite this Henry Ossawa through his international reputation inspired generations of African American artists.
His wife Jessie died on September 8th 1925 and Tanner died in Paris, alone, on May 25th, 1937, a month before his 78th birthday. On October 29th 1996, in the White House, the American president, Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary unveiled Tanner’s 1885 painting Sand dunes at Sunset in Atlantic City.
The painting became the first work by an African American artist to join the White House permanent collection.