The Souls of Black Art - the Spirit Creative

An Overview of the History of African American Art
and Black Artists - Series 1, Part 5.

Written by Kamau Austin and Edited by Carol Austin

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One of Henry O Tanner's
Most Remembered Paintings
The Banjo Lesson
Link to obtain Henry O Tanner's Banjo Lesson
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Words with Wings: A Treasury of
African American Poetry and Pride

by Belinda Rochelle

Henry O Tanner

Henry O Tanner (1859-1937) was born On June 21, 1859, as the eldest of 9 children born to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, an educated Bishop in the AME denomination, and Sarah Miller Tanner a former slave. Bishop Tanner, was considered an progressive Preacher back in his day because, he and Mrs. Tanner, were known as a very progressive family involved in things like abolition.

His mother Sarah Tanner, was very interesting also, as a former slave, whose mother had sent her north to Pittsburgh through the Underground Railroad. The Tanner family moved quite a bit during his early years because Bishop Tanner, his father, was assigned to various churches and schools. In 1864 Tanner's family settled in Philadelphia where his early artistic interests were developed.

It is amazing that Black artists could create beautiful black art during the African American period of slavery because of the oppressive conditions. Henry Ossawa Tanner's life is known to be ironic. His middle name, given to him by his parents, came from the town of Osawatomie, the Kansas town where white abolitionist John Brown, launched his anti-slavery campaign. Tanner would go on to become an internationally acclaimed black artist, who only painted 2 paintings of Black Art, depicting Black American life, but he became a great source of inspiration to Black Americans during his time, and in subsequent periods. Since racism in the United States curtailed his career, he had to move to Paris to reach his potential and practice his art.

The Tanner family, according to reports, first moved to Philadelphia between 1866-1868. Philadelphia was home to one of the largest inner city populations at the time, which had a sizable middle class. The family's first home was at 3rd and Pine Streets. Later the family needed more space and moved to a larger house at 2908 Diamond Street.

His family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1868. At that time he attended the Robert Vaux School for Negro students. The school was one of the few that African Americans could attend that featured an liberal arts program back in the 1850's. Tanner became the valedictorian of his class at graduation

Tanner was 13 when he observed an artist working in Fairmont Park and was inspired to become an artist. In the beginning Bishop Tanner was not too supportive of his career. Eager to discourage his son's interest in art, Bishop Tanner apprenticed him to a friend to learn the milling business. However it was purported that Tanner's health was too frail to work in the milling business, in that he was constantly sick, in his younger years. He became very sick in the mill and had to stop working. His parents encouraged him to paint during his recuperation. Henry basically lived at home for a few years except for several trips to Florida and the Adirondack Mountains which were better for his health. Sarah Miller Tanner, Henry's Mother, actually made a palette for her young son and bought paints for him out of her household money.

There was a great deal of Art inspiration that Tanner gained in Philadelphia where he lived 25 years of his life. Located there was the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in the city which featured works of African American Art by Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis and Black painter Edward Mitchell Bannister.

Henry Tanner, really took in all the great art galleries and shows that had occasion to be represented in Philidelphia, "After school, I would often go down on Chestnut Street, to see the pictures in Earle's Galleries," he recalled in 1909. "After drinking my fill of these art wonders, l would hurry home and paint what I had seen, and what fun it was." Even though artistic life held little promise for Tanner, he persevered, and at age 21 entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study under Thomas Eakins.

In 1880, when Tanner was twenty-one, he enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There he studied with a group of master professors including Thomas Eakins. Eakins, encouraged Black artists and women artists to take the study of art seriously at a time when many careers were closed to them. Blacks were not allowed to become artists or practice any art offically before Emancipation, after Civil War this attitude and policy only changed very slowly.

Eakins, the controversial artist, who became a lifelong friend, used photographs and anatomical study to teach his students to paint exact images. Henry Tanner kept those meticulous habits throughout his career, even as his painting style moved from Eakins' realism toward a looser, color-oriented technique. Eakins left an indeliable stamp on the painting style of Henry Tanner.

"The training was pretty rigorous," said Elizabeth Johns, an Eakins scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. "They had to understand laws of perspective and draw from casts and from life, so that Tanner was capable of modeling convincing humans." Those careful habits meant Tanner never produced more than 30 paintings a year, said Darrel Sewell, curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and of the exhibit. "He didn't make paintings spontaneously. He wasn't like the impressionists who went out on a field and painted. For him, a painting was a constructed thing."

After two years at the Pennsylvania Academy, Tanner left to establish himself as a painter. He sold illustrations -and exhibited his work at the school and at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1888, he opened a photography studio and taught drawing in Atlanta. He tried unsuccessfully to earn a living selling drawings, shooting photographs, and teaching. Despite these three endeavors he was not able to make a living in such a fashion.

In search of further training and more acceptance of his naturalistic painting style, Tanner moved to Paris in 1891. Here he assimilated aspects of the Impressionist style, such as looser brushwork and a focus on the effects of light. You were not really considered a serious American artist at the end of the 19th century unless you studied in western Europe especially Paris. Henry Tanner sailed for Europe in 1891, he did this because of both the romantic appeal and the acceptance he would gain if he was a success in this proving ground.

America concurrently was becoming more hostile to blacks in this back lash period to Emancipation. During this period the Ku Klux Klan and other racially hateful groups were on the rise. It is said that Tanner indeed left the US after being taunted in a small Pennsylvania town where he moved to paint. He is quoted as saying, by Alexander-Minter "He couldn't go on painting there. It was too uncomfortable. He could not paint in an atmospere where he was not accepted.

Henry was warm to France. He studied at the Academie Julien, deeping his studies in realistic and precise painting. He stayed in France two years before he developed Tuberculosis from which he had to return to the United States. Seriously Ill and with no money, Tanner was still able to create two of his most popular works "The Banjo Lesson" and "The Thankful Poor". Both paintings were two gentle depictions of the life of American Blacks, and were in stark contrast of the Minstrel dipictions of Black Art characteristic of the period. This sensitivity to Black Art was influenced probably by the social activism of his father, Bishop Tanner who worked as both a teacher and journal editor at the Freedman's School.

It was recorded that Henry O Tanner once stated, in reference to his paintings "He was saying to his father, I can make positive statements just like you can," said art historian Naurice F. Woods. "You preach from the pulpit. As an artist, I can too."

In "The Banjo Lesson" and the "The Thankful Poor" Tanner genius can be seen in both styles of Impression juxtaposed with the Impressionist school techniques. Along with its gentleness, the painting offers a stern response to the mocking stereotypes of blacks so popular at the time. With a banjo and an elderly black man, Tanner transformed the minstrel tradition into an instrument of racial pride. Tanner stated in his writings in this period he intended "to counter the comic stereotypes then common in American art and literature", and therefore chose to depict a more serious side of life. (Art History, Stokstad) Tanner's work The Banjo Lesson (1893), became so popular that even Booker T. Washington advocated that African Americans buy reproductions of the paintings.

Despite some positive response by African Americans to his paintings, Tanner Missed the more liberal racial climate of France, Henry O Tanner went back to Europe in 1894. Once returning to Paris in 1894, since he really never found commercial acceptance in the US, due to aesthetic and racial attitudes, he gave up Black Art or African American art themes to focus on riveting religious works of art. Some opine that he did not do Black art or African American art because he did not have access to the subject matter in France, or there was no market for Black Art in his new location.

In 1894, Tanner began to receive the critical attention he long sought. The prestigious art salon, Societe des Artists Francais, accepted "The Music Lesson" for exhibition. In 1896, "Daniel in the Lion's Den" received an honorable mention at the salon. Another salon-exhibited work, "The Resurrection of Lazarus" (1897), so impressed Rodman Wanamaker that the son of legendary Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker sponsored Tanner's first trip (and a subsequent one) to the Holy Land.

That 1897 visit marked Tanner's turn toward religious subjects. With his stripped-down figures and special attention to lighting and color, familiar Biblical scenes became expressions of an intensely personal mysticism.

In 1899, Tanner married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a white singer from San Francisco who had been a model for his 1898 painting "The Innunciation." They married in London and settled in France, where they raised their son, Jesse.

Tanner's fortunes rose substantially at the turn of the century., with a succession of honors and exhibits. He continued to exhibit at the Salon of the Societe des Artistes Francais, but also held shows throughout the United States. In 1909, he was elected to the National Academy. He also received the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1923, the country's highest
civilian award.

But World War I shattered Tanner's domestic peace. He left painting temporarily to drive an ambulance in war torn France. His wife died in 1925 in her sleep and his son suffered a nervous breakdown soon after. Tanner never returned to the US, the land of his birth after these problems.

He resumed his painting, but success was hobbled by increasing health problems, the economic pinch of the Depression and the modern styles sweeping Europe and America. Tanner died peacefully in his sleep May 25, 1937, at age 78, in his Paris apartment. Henry O Tanner spent about 46 of his 78 years painting in Paris, France but his painting success was seen as very uplifting to Black artists and Black art collectioners here in the United States. This quiet, reserved, revolutionary broke down barriers as one of the first academically trained African American Artist and one of the first permanent expatriates. His success encouraged younger black artists like Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Meta Warrick Fuller and Romare Bearden - leaders in the Harlem Renaissance, the Depression-era artistic revolution.


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