Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) certainly could paint the blues.
In describing his 1923 canvas, “Flight Into Egypt,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes “Tanner blues” as being made of “complex layers of glazes.” (Note: There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography that provides details for materials used in researching this essay.)
The Smithsonian American Art Museum describes a Tanner work in its collection, “Moses in the Bullrushes,” 1921, as follows: “The muted blues capture the nighttime scene, where the moonlight reflecting on the water may signify God’s presence.”
In “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water,” Tanner painted a scene that plays “out in endless variations of blue,” according to the Des Moines Art Center. “The thick layers of paint add a rich texture to the surface, and add even more depth and shading to the water, sky, and figures,” the museum said.
In “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water,” we again have light standing in for a divine presence, in both how Christ is depicted and reflected.
Nikola Tesla and New Testament
Tanner also used light as a stand-in for the divine, in this case the Archangel Gabriel, in his 1898 painting, titled “The Annunciation.” This artistic choice reflects society’s fascination with electricity in what’s called the Belle Époque (1871–1914).
Many technologies we now take for granted were welcomed into people’s lives during the Belle Époque. Parisians artists of the time paid homage to the Eiffel Tower, considered a victory of modern engineering. Artist Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), for example, repeatedly painted that wrought-iron monument. Delaunay also adored airplanes — another new invention — into his canvases, as seen below.
Tastes had changed in France in the late 19th century, with many artists having rebelled against earlier dictates favoring religious art and scenes from antiquity. Like Delaunay, they painted what they saw in real life.
Not Tanner. He found his inspiration in the stories of the Bible. But he also was a fan of emerging science, as shown by his depictions of divine beings as light.
Tanner had had attended the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, the site of a technological triumph for famous inventor Nikola Tesla, notes art historian Elena Ivanova in her excellent 2012 essay, “Virgin Mary and Electricity.” Tesla’s technology allowed for illumination of more than 200,000 light bulbs at the fair. Tesla also was quite the showman, as seen in the famous staged publicity photo. Photographer Dickenson V. Alley first captured the huge sparks in the darkened room and then added the image of Tesla sitting calmly reading in the chair, according to the Wikipedia page for this image.
Tanner looked to the modern miracle of electricity in telling an ancient tale, that of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel.
To modern eyes, there may not be much shocking in Tanner’s painting. But for a visitor to the prestigious 1898 Salon exhibition in Paris, it was far from normal to have a flash of light stand in for an archangel. And viewers at the exhibition may have found this painting “disturbing and blasphemous” for other reason, Ivanova wrote. Without the help of the title of Tanner’s painting, some viewers might not have guessed it showed the story of Gabriel’s visit, according to Ivanova.
“Nothing in this work reminded them of the popular biblical subject, at least not in the way it had been portrayed since the Renaissance: no golden-winged angel, no ethereally beautiful Madonna, no haloes, no luscious display of textures and rich garments,” Ivanova wrote.
Look below at famous paintings based on the same story of Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Three accomplished artists — Caravaggio, Fra Filippo Lippi and El Greco — paint Mary in sumptuous robes and seemingly luxurious surroundings.
Only one of these three paintings let us see Mary’s entire face. I’d describe the expression shown by El Greco’s Mary as complacent. She’s depicted as a child of wealth, as a woman who not only could read, but had time to do so. And as with the Caravaggio and Lippi paintings, Mary here already wears her trademark blue robe.
Not so with Tanner’s Mary.
Tanner’s Mary is on guard, a bit anxious, with her hands clasped. Tanner’s painting seems to reflect his time spent studying local customs on his research trips to the Middle East in the 1890s. She sits in a room with a simple water jug. Her robe is lovely, but it does not have the shine of imported silk.
More importantly, though, there are questions in Mary’s eyes as she looks at Gabriel’s glowing light. There’s an element of suspense here. That trademark blue cloth appears on the right side of the canvas, but Mary is not wearing it. She has not yet wrapped herself in the robe that European artists over centuries have taught us to associate with the mother of Christ.
I’m a big fan of El Greco. His Mary seen above would make a lovely devotional image or a greeting card. But Tanner’s painting is the stuff of a short Netflix or HBO series. It is like the opening shot for one of the “origin story" movies we have seen lately for superheroes like Black Panther and Aquaman.
Why was this woman from obviously fairly humble circumstances chosen to be the mother of Jesus? What will it take to resolve the questions in her eyes and have her take up that blue mantle?
In her article, Ivanova noted that Tanner put Mary in the center stage in this painting. This is in keeping with Tanner’s artistic credo — “give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same,” according to Ivanova.
“Tanner invites us to share Mary’s emotions and maybe, through this experience, to come closer to understanding the spiritual message of his painting,” Ivanova wrote.
Tanner entered this painting in the 1898 Paris Salon exhibition. The Philadelphia Museum of Art bought it 1899. The museum’s website says “The Annunciation” was Tanner’s first work to enter an American museum.
Defining Painters’ Lives Too Narrowly?
The Philadelphia Art Museum now owns several works by Tanner. In the tag lines for these paintings and drawings, the museum describes Tanner as having been “American (active France).”
That’s a far more accurate description than the one used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s shorthand for Tanner is simply “American.”
The Met also uses this one-word “American” description, with even less accuracy, for painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Sargent was born in Florence and didn’t visit the United States until he was 20. He then tried a few stints of American life, but spent most of his years in Europe. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s shorthand for Sargent describes him as “American (active London, Florence, and Paris).”
Oddly, at least to my mind, the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses the simple shorthand of “American” to describe Tanner’s fellow expat Mary Cassatt. Like Tanner, she was a native of Pennsylvania who developed her career as an artist over decades in France and spent most of her life there. Both Tanner and Cassatt died in France and were buried there.
Tanner had Rome as his initial destination when he left the United States in 1891 for Europe. But he liked what he found in France — and made it his home.
Lewis Tanner Moore Jr., the artist’s great-grand nephew, spoke of the painter’s reasons for settling in France in connection with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ 2012 exhibition, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit Exhibition.” Moore counters the idea of Tanner moving to Europe solely to avoid the prejudice and discrimination in the United States as a Black man.
“Other American artists who were not African-American went to Europe, found success, liked playing in the big league, as it were, and made a life there,” Moore said in a recording posted on Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ YouTube channel.
“You can speculate on how much of it was a result of the racial climate — and certainly there was some of that — but it also was where artists wanted to be, you wanted to be succeeding at the highest level and what he found there was not only acceptance and professional development, but that acknowledgment of the quality of the work he was doing without a comment” regarding his race.
I hope no one is offended that Tanner’s race has not been mentioned earlier in this essay. I debated about this. The intention was not to obscure Tanner’s heritage and impressive family history.
The painter was the son of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Tanner, who was born a slave in Virginia. Sarah’s mother sent her north to Pittsburgh through the Underground Railroad. In additional to his religious work, Benjamin Tucker Tanner spent many years as the editor of the Christian Recorder, at that time the largest Black-owned periodical in the United States.
The Tanners lived for many years in Philadelphia, where their household “was a haven for prominent guests, including famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama entry for Halle Tanner Dillon. Halle Tanner Dillon was Henry’s younger sister. In 1891, she became first woman certified to practice medicine in Alabama.
And Henry had his own “first” accomplishments, including winning France’s top award. Henry was made an honorary chevalier of the nation’s Order of the Legion of Honor.
In structuring this essay, though, I wanted to pretend for a few minutes that we live in a world where Tanner’s heritage would be an interesting detail to know about him, but not necessarily the defining element.
Knowing Tanner was Black should be a way of adding deeper context to understanding his art, but you should be able to appreciate it on its own.
Readers unfamiliar with Tanner can learn first about his fondness for the color blue before having to consider how the American obsession with skin tone affected the painter’s life.
Readers can ponder first on Tanner’s attempt to make “the whole world kin” in his paintings, and then think about all of the people who tried to exclude him due to his race.
“The Banjo Lesson”
By the way, you may notice a sudden shift from now on in news stories to use of a capital B for Black. On June 19, the day before this essay was published, the Associated Press Stylebook announced a change in its rules. Most news organizations pay at least some heed to Associated Press (AP) style rules. Here’s the update from AP:
“Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone,” the stylebook nows says.
Tanner’s most famous painting is shown above. “The Banjo Lesson” is a tender portrayal of family life. Many people hoped Tanner would produce more of these works, wrote historian Naurice Frank Woods Jr. in a 2011 paper in the Journal of Black Studies, “Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Negotiation of Race and Art: Challenging `The Unknown Tanner’.” Tanner’s work would offer a true take on Black people’s lives at a time when offensive images of them were being mass produced, as was the case with certain prints by Currier & Ives.
Instead, Tanner spent much of his life in France and focused on his favored themes. These were Biblical stories and paintings of twilight times — nocturnes — that allowed him to explore the color blue.
Tanner had financial incentives for these choices, noted Woods in his paper. His religious paintings were more likely to bring him “money and medals,” Woods wrote. But there also was an artistic strategy at work.
In his paper, Woods cites author and activist Booker T. Washington’s observation that Tanner was proud of his heritage and deeply conscious of being “on trial to prove” Black painters’ right to be taken seriously in the art world.
“In the end, Tanner not only accomplished that but, in the process, brilliantly negotiated a path that united pride of race and art as no one had done before,” Wood concludes.
Click either of the following links for more details on the works used in my research for this essay. Should Tanner appear in my bibliography for American or European artists? In the end, I decided he belonged in both lists. I look more at “The Annunciation” in this sidebar. And click here for my Medium post on Delaunay if you’d like to know more about him.