(Cincinnati Art Museum) Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit was on view at the Cincinnati Art Msueum from May 26th to September 9, 2012. I recently went to the Cincinnati Art Museum on two occasions to see the Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit exhibit.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be there during a museum lecture or tour. So after coming back home the second time, I went to the library and checked out the only in-depth book I could find on Henry Ossawa Tanner entitled, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist by Marcia M. Mathews. I then contacted the museum to get some hi-resolution photos to reference while I read. Here is what I found:

  • Henry Ossawa Tanner

L. Matthes, Henry Ossawa Tanner with palette, c. 1935. Black-and-white photographic print, 7 x 9 in. Henry Ossawa
Tanner papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

  • Beginnings
  1. Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African American born to a very religious man and woman six years before the civil war ended.
  2. At age thirteen, he moves to Philadelphia from Maryland. At Fairmont park in Philadelphia, he sees a landscape painter and is inspired to paint himself. He receives 15 cents to purchase paint brushes and dry pigment. He heads to the same spot he saw the landscape painter to paint.
  3. As he grows up he has dreams of becoming a great painter. He spends a great deal of time painting at the zoo:

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
    Pomp at the Zoo, c. 1880
    Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in.
    Collection of Lewis Tanner Moore
    Photo: Rick Echelmeyer

  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
  1. After failed attempts to find a serious artist to apprentice under, and at age 21, he enrolls at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art as the only non-Caucasian.
  2. He only stays at the school for two years but learns a great deal about structure and lighting in art from Thomas Eakins. Eakins finds him an endearing young man, and thus Tanner becomes one of the few people to have his portrait voluntarily painted by Eakins:

    Thomas Eakins (American 1844-1916)
    Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, c. 1897
    Oil on canvas, 24 5/8 x 20 1/8 in.
    The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York,
    Bequest of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.16

  • France (student)
  1. After leaving the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Tanner tries his luck at illustration but finds little success. This prompts him to move to Atlanta where he begins to teach at Clark-Atlanta. Two of his friends that he meets while at Clark-Atlanta invest for him to travel to Europe. In 1891, he heads for London.
  2. In Europe he plans to study in Italy, but gets side-tracked when he makes it to Paris. He is so enamored with the city that he wants to stay there. He completely falls in love with Europe especially since he didn’t have to put up with the racist ideology of America.
  3. He attends the Academy Julien but believes that the students waste a great deal of time. He spends much time studying at the Louvre and sketching animals at the Jardin des Plantes.
  4. He gets rejected by the Salon, becomes ill, and returns to America. He makes some money selling some paintings and then, with the help of his father, makes it back to Paris. This time, his painting Daniel at the Lion’s Den is accepted into the Salon of 1894.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) Daniel in the Lions’ Den, 1896. Oil on canvas (lost).
    Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Archives

  5. The painting is hung in an obscure spot at the Salon. However, Jean-Leon Gerome personally requests to have it moved to a more noticeable place.
  6. Tanner receives an honorable mention for Daniel at the Lion’s Den and becomes a painting sensation in France.
  • The Orient
  1. Tanner decided he would paint the story of Lazarus for the next salon. This time, many people came to watch him paint. One man named Rodman Wannamaker wanted to see the painting in its completion. When he did see it, he was so impressed that he offered to pay Tanner’s way to the Holy Land so that he could really see, know, and feel, “the orient.”
  2. The Raising of Lazarus is the painting that makes Tanner famous. After returning to Paris, the French government has purchased his painting and he has become the talk of the town.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
    Raising of Lazarus, 1910
    Etching on paper, 7 ¼ x 5 ¼ in.
    The Harmon and Harriet KelleFoundation for the Arts

  3. Rodman Wannamker offers to, again, pay his way to Palestine for him to paint. Tanner, again, politely accepts. However, because of political turmoil, he is unable to paint like he wants.
  • Stardom
  1. After Tanner paints The Raising of Lazarus, he begins to have all kinds of good fortune.
  2. He falls in love with Jessie Olsen whom happens to be Caucasian. She models for him in his painting Annunciation.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
    Study for The Annunciation, c. 1898
    Oil on wood, 8 ½ x 10 ¾ in.
    Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins, 1983.95.187

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
    The Annunciation, 1898
    Oil on canvas, 57 x 71 ¼ in.
    Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1899, W1899-1-1

  3. Shortly after, they get married in 1897 and have a son.
  4. In 1908, his painting entitled Wise and Foolish Virgins was given second place at the Salon d’Honneur.
  5. Wise and Foolish Virgins is considered a masterpiece. Tanner is invited to dinner held by the President of the Republic.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1907-08. Oil on canvas (lost), approximately, 10 ft 6 in x 14 ft 8
    in. Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Archives

  • America
  1. Tanner is slowly accepted in America. However, there is still the issue of race attached to everything he does.
  2. In 1905, he is the only non-Causcasian to show art at the Carnegie Exhibit. The Carnegie Exhibit displays his painting Christ Covenanting with the High Priests.
  3. The following year, the Carnegie Institute of Art acquires his painting Christ at home with Mary and Martha.
  4. In 1906, Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciplesis exhibited at the yearly show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, 1905. Oil on canvas (lost). Image
    courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Archives

  5. His painting Two Disciples at the Tomb received the Harris Prize of $500 and was later acquired by the Chicago Art Institute.
  6. In 1908, he has a one man show at the American Art galleries.
  7. In 1909, he is elected associate member to the National Academy of Design, alongside Mary Cassatt and Frederick Waugh.
  • World War I
  1. World War I begins and almost all painting halts. No one is really interested in art at this time. He tries to involve himself in the war but is over the age limit at 58 years of age. So, he instead comes up with the idea to grow crops and take care of livestock for injured soldiers. The Red Cross also requests war sketches.
  2. After the War, Tanner continues to paint. He is recognized as a great painter in both America and Europe.
  • Late Years
  1. Shortly after the war ends, his wife dies, his son becomes very ill, and the Great Depression begins. He becomes a very depressed in his late life. He begins to produce paintings at a much slower rate sometimes even to the impatience of his patrons.
  2. He finds himself painting smaller paintings at reduced prices.
  3. He tres to make it back to America but doesn’t have the funds to do so.
  4. However, it is believed that his spirit was still joyful, and he died in his sleep on May 25, 1937.

Thank you for reading,


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