So begins the foreword to the catalog that accompanied the 2012 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibit was entitled Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1859, Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia while he was still very young. The city served as an incubator for great American art and artists, and so it proved to be with him.
Tanner’s professional journey began at age thirteen with a walk beside his father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, where they encountered a landscape painter. Transfixed by the magic of this artist’s craft, Tanner knew at that formative moment that he wanted to be an artist.
[From the above cited Foreword, by David R. Brigham]
In 1879, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He profited greatly from his studies there, especially those undertaken with Thomas Eakins. Nevertheless, his exposure to the taunts and routine humiliation of racism distracted and dismayed him. And so, like many of his fellow artists, he journeyed to France. This was in 1891. In 1899, he married Jessie Olsson, a Swedish-American opera singer. They had a son, Jesse. With the exception of several short trips back to America, Tanner remained living abroad for the remainder of his life.
Tanner’s style was fluid; his subject matter ranged from scenes of daily life for African-Americans to religious subjects.
In paintings like The Banjo Lesson, one can see the fluid use of paint, as if he effortlessly swept the pigment onto the canvas. The light and color of the piece echo the Impressionists in that it seems as if the subjects are caught at a fleeting moment as the sun starts to fade. While many of his works were influenced by Impressionism he never moved into the whole of that style, and because of this he was often criticized as being too “old fashion.” Yet, when looking at his use of color and the application of paint, there is such vitality and softness that it is hard to imagine calling it “old fashioned.”
Both in his genre scenes, African American paintings and his religious work, there is a type of compassion and gentleness between the subjects, which is rarely seen in art. In his painting The Annunciation (1898), the divine light of an angelic presence illuminates the entire room. The young Mary, frightened but full of gentleness looks questioningly towards the messenger whose warm light seems to embrace her.
[From the Henry Ossawa Tanner entry on Sullivan Goss: An America Art Gallery]
In recognition of his achievements as an artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner was honored in his adoptive country France by being made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1923.
To view more of Tanner’s art, go to The Athenaeum.