Making the Modern Divine: The images of Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is celebrated for his intimate paintings of African-American domestic life and biblical narratives. The artist wanted to appeal to viewers’ sense of shared humanity in his works—as he puts it, quoting Shakespeare, to “give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.”

The son of a former slave and an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Tanner was raised in post-Civil War Philadelphia as a member of an educated African-American elite. One of the first African-Americans to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he worked with the realist painter Thomas Eakins, who greatly admired his student and even painted his portrait. After a failed attempt to run a photography studio in Atlanta, Ga., Tanner moved to Paris, where he studied painting and exhibited at the prestigious salons. He remained in the French capital for most of his life and in 1896 began to focus on religious subject matter. In 1897 he took his first trip to the Near East to examine the architecture, dress and people there in order to render biblical scenes more convincingly. His landscapes and cityscapes from this time offer a fascinating glimpse into the region’s built and natural environment.


Religion and Tanner

The religious paintings by Tanner provide empathetic, naturalistic interpretations of the Old and New Testaments. One of his earliest, and today most famous, religious paintings is “The Annunciation,” from 1898. Mary sits on the edge of her bed, hands clasped, staring with a look of attentive, concerned awe at Gabriel, who is portrayed as a glowing presence that illuminates the room and has kicked up the rug at her bare feet.

Often this story is interpreted with a winged angel, cherubs and a demure, haloed Mary surrounded by symbols of her purity. Tanner, however, paints it as a realist. The arched walls, stone floor and screen behind Mary reflect the artist’s research in Palestine. Gabriel is represented as a suspended pillar of light made up of multiple layers of thickly applied yellow and orange paint. Tanner depicts the heavenly messenger in a manner that conveys an unmistakable presence without introducing an overtly celestial figure into Mary’s rustic abode. The artist achieves a powerful evocation of the divine as something beyond what can be given figurative form. Tanner also shows the profound transformation of Mary’s identity in a manner that brings together the earthly and the divine.

Light as symbolic of God’s presence pervades Tanner’s work; it offered him a way to show biblical scenes without compromising his commitment to naturalism. A shaft of light, for example, falling on Daniel in the lion’s den tells us that he will survive, and the subtle but unmistakable illumination of Jesus’ face conveys his divinity as he speaks with Nicodemus.

In later paintings Tanner moved away from realism toward an increasingly expressive, subjective and intense visualization of sacred experiences. In works like “The Holy Family” (pg. 19), light takes on a life of its own and seems almost supernatural, rendered in startlingly bright colors that create a sense of otherworldliness. Mary kneels solemnly before a fireplace, her child lying swaddled at her feet, as Joseph stands in shadow. Set against the dark tones of the interior, her bright blue veil, the same color as the baby’s head shroud, seems to radiate light rather than simply reflect the blaze. Tanner’s imaginative rendering of this invented scenario highlights the subjectivity of the figures, particularly Mary. At the same time, as in most of his works, the artist invites viewers to interpret the image from a personal perspective and to gain deeper insight into the painting and the story.

The domesticity of many of Tanner’s scenes makes them accessible to viewers. As Marcus Bruce writes in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, such settings allowed Tanner to “symbolically construct forms of kinship that were both familiar and yet strange to viewers,” while subverting “the limitations of the racial and religious discourses of his time.” Tanner used his works to communicate and teach. Throughout his career, the artist’s sensitive, psychologically probing compositions of biblical figures manifest his faith and call on viewers to examine their own beliefs.

Tanner’s genre paintings subvert the racist stereotypes of his times. Works like “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), a sympathetic depiction of an African-American man teaching his grandson to play the banjo, is a direct response to the common characterization of African-Americans as comic musical entertainers. Tanner wrote that in his paintings he wanted to show “the serious, and pathetic side of life” among African-Americans.

Tanner had many reasons for painting religious subjects. Certainly his upbringing and abiding spirituality motivated him. His biblical images evoke experiences common to everyone and have been interpreted as symbolizing hope for African-Americans. On a practical level, religious subjects allowed him to broaden the scope of his work beyond African-American genre scenes and appeal to a wider audience.

Tanner’s focus on spiritual themes has earned him a unique—and problematic—place in the history of art. Although religious themes were popular in the United States and France in the late 19th century, modernism increasingly emphasized the formal characteristics of art—color, light, line and composition—and largely dismissed narratives, including biblical ones. This shift led to a general dismissal of religious art as conservative and unsophisticated, as Sally Promey, a professor of religion and visual culture at Yale, has pointed out. Many still celebrate Tanner as a religious painter, however, while others concentrate on his African-American identity. Ironically, both approaches marginalize his work.

The Traveling Exhibit

“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy, aims to correct this marginalization. The show describes Tanner as a highly acclaimed, international modern artist who reinvigorated genre paintings and religious art through innovative artistic techniques—loose brushwork, evocative colors and a distinctive mastery of light. The exhibition takes the visitor on a journey through Tanner’s life, from his earliest days in Philadelphia to the Salon in Paris and finally his depictions of Palestine and Egypt. It presents over 100 works, including “Resurrection of Lazarus” (1896), which has never been seen in the United States before; Eakins’s portrait of Tanner; as well as drawings, photographs, sculptures, studies and a copy of Ladies’ Home Journal, that features one of the many drawings he made for the magazine. A stunning sketch for “The Annunciation” hints at figuration in the Gabriel depiction that the artist ultimately rejected. Exhibited together, these various media provide a thorough account of Tanner’s work and life, reinforced by helpful wall texts and an audio guide that interweaves the insights of eight individuals, including Tanner, the artist Faith Ringgold and Tanner’s great-nephew, Lewis Tanner Moore. (The show will be on view in Philadelphia until April 15. Then it will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.)

The exhibition catalogue includes 14 essays that explore Tanner’s work in the context of other African-American artists; Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; religion, popular culture, modern art and technology. By analyzing Tanner’s paintings in the context of Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the catalogue paints a portrait of Tanner as fully immersed in the artistic currents that surrounded him—symbolism, Orientalism, pictorialism. Tanner’s interest in light may be linked to developments in lighting technologies, specifically the work of the inventor Nikola Tesla, who revolutionized commercial electricity in that era, as well as that of the dancer Loïe Fuller, who designed an “underlighting device” for her performances. The catalogue features an unprecedented scientific analysis of Tanner’s materials and techniques, explaining how he layered oils, resins and tempera in complex ways to create the desired effect.

David Morgan, a religion scholar, has explained the “sacred gaze” as what takes place when we look at a religious image and project our beliefs onto the piece. Tanner was mindful of the important role of paintings. His works invite us to affirm, question or dismiss our perceptions of biblical stories and thus to renew our own understanding of ourselves as viewers and as participants in the revelation of the divine.

A symposium on Christianity and African American art will be held on March 23 and 24 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Learn more here.

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5 years 10 months ago
Truly beautiful imagery. The 'storytelling' in such images inspired by scriptures should be utilized more than they are in transmitting the gospel story to all who hunger to 'hear' and 'see' the story.


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