Henry Ossawa Tanner was a reluctant avatar. The subject of “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” a historically gripping exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he is remembered today as the first African-American artist to achieve international fame in modern times. But that is not how he wanted to be known.
Frustrated by prejudice in the United States, Tanner (1859-1937) moved to Europe in 1891 in search of a race-blind environment. There he found success as a painter of luminous pictures of biblical subjects that made no reference to the African-American experience.
From 1896 on, his paintings were regularly accepted into the Paris salons, awarded prizes and praised by critics. Success in France translated to the United States, where his works were shown in major cities from New York to San Francisco and were displayed in international art expositions like the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Pan-American in Buffalo.
But his reception differed significantly by continent. In Europe his race was rarely mentioned in usually glowing reviews. Critics and journalists in the United States, on the other hand, invariably highlighted that he was a Negro, the son of a woman who was born into slavery and a father who was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He became a hero to black Americans, and reproductions of his most famous painting, “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), hung in countless homes across America. A visit with Tanner was obligatory for young black artists seeking to expand their intellectual horizons in Europe.
After “The Banjo Lesson,” however, he made only one painting about African-American life: “The Thankful Poor” (1894), a touching picture of a grandfatherly man and a boy in prayer at their humble dining table. (Neither painting is in the academy’s show.) When artists of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s sought his participation in their movement, he demurred.
All this makes Tanner’s case fascinating to consider, especially with the help of the excellent catalogue edited by Anna O. Marley, the art historian who organized the exhibition.
Tanner made his first mature works under the influence of Thomas Eakins, his mentor at the Pennsylvania Academy, where Tanner studied off and on from 1879 through 1885. Eakins liked Tanner and made a typically sensitive portrait of him in 1897 that is included in the show.
For Tanner, the most affecting product of his apprenticeship to Eakins was a tender 1897 portrait of Tanner’s mother sitting meditatively in profile in a dark room. It is a variation on “Whistler’s Mother,” but there is a lot of Rembrandt in it too, and Tanner’s mother seems much more approachable than Whistler’s.
“The Young Sabot Maker” (1895), in which a boy drills out the hollow of a wooden shoe in a rustic shop under the eye of his gray-haired master, shows that Tanner had great promise as a painter of homely, light-hearted genre scenes. Finely detailed yet painted with sensuous verve, it could almost be mistaken for a Norman Rockwell. But Tanner left behind this sort of keen anecdotal observation when he took up religious themes, which he treated with sombre, comparatively stripped-down gravity.
The turn to religion reflected his upbringing as one of nine in a well-to-do household headed by a prominent black minister. But it also had to do with the times. As Ms. Marley explains in her catalogue essay, there was great demand for religious art in America, and Tanner, as well as many French artists, worked industriously to meet it.
One of Tanner’s first big hits was “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1896), a nocturnal scene in Rembrandt-esque browns illuminated by shades of yellow and cream, in which Jesus and a group of followers look down on a bearded man reclining in his grave, as if in a bathtub. In the 1897 Paris Salon it received a third-class medal and was bought by the French government for the Musée du Luxembourg.
Most striking of all is “The Annunciation” (1898), in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary as a burst of bright yellow light that fills the room with a warm glow. Swaddled in a striped, luxuriantly wrinkly robe, Mary sits on her rumpled bed with folded hands and looks sideways at the apparition with a slightly suspicious expression.
Turning the angel into such an abstraction makes the mystical event almost plausible for an age of science. In fact, in a catalogue essay called “The Dynamo and the Virgin” (a nod to Henry Adams), Hélène Valance speculates that Tanner was inspired partly by the celebrity inventor Nikola Tesla, who was demonstrating the wonders of electricity to audiences at the time.
You could read the painting as an annunciation of the coming age of electricity. But Tanner did not take his own hint. He modernized to the extent of embracing Gauguin-like style. But that led to bland, flattened illustrations like those you might find in a mass-market Bible.
In his last two decades he experimented with mixing different kinds of paint that he built up into layers usually keyed to a ghastly candy-blue colour. Tending toward archetypal simplification, some of these, like “The Miraculous Haul of Fishes” (1913-14), suggest that his big influence in this period was Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Would Tanner be remembered today if our art history were colour-blind? Going by this exhibition as a whole, I would guess no. But if one great work is enough to earn an artist unqualified canonization, then yes: “The Annunciation” is a painting of amazing grace.
“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” runs through April 15 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia