Henry O. Tanner's paintings reflect transitional period in which he lived


February 03, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

PHILADELPHIA — About three quarters of the way through "Henry Ossawa Tanner" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through April 14) there is a painting that may be Tanner's most distinct and modern.

"Fishermen at Sea" (about 1913-1914) in subject matter is traditional enough for this somewhat conservative painter -- a boat tossed on the waves. But rather than a traditional treatment, Tanner has tilted up the perspective until we see nothing but sea, no horizon or sky, thus forcing out of the picture much of the illusion of space. The boat is also tilted almost parallel with the picture plane so that we see directly down into it. There are a couple of tiny people, mere blobs, but more clearly seen is an abstract composition of swatches of paint laid on with a palette knife.

Most curious, the painting was discovered long after the artist's death underneath another painting on the same stretcher. Perhaps Tanner considered it unfinished, but the suggestion is made that the two paintings may have been put on one stretcher for shipment from France to the United States for exhibition. No record of its exhibition exists, however.

At any rate, to present-day eyes it appears as one of the most experimental and successful of Tanner's paintings, precisely because it eschews his usual religious subject matter and is largely concerned with formal means.

To Tanner, formal means were important; he was quoted at one point in his career as saying that "color and design should be as carefully thought out as if the subject had only these qualities." But in the same quote he speaks of the "nobility" of religious subject matter, of how important it is "to try to convey to the public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to you. . ."

It is a quote that reflects but one of several seeming contradictions in Tanner's life and work that are brought out so well by this thorough exhibit of more than 100 works and its accompanying catalog. An African-American born in the white-dominated United States in 1859, he has been described as "quiet" and "self-effacing," but he persevered and triumphed in one of the most difficult of all careers, making a living as an

artist. At the height of his career he was so well regarded that in 1900 he sold a painting to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for three times as much as the same academy had paid

three years earlier for a painting by its former director Thomas Eakins.

In the early 1890s he left America and subsequently settled in France, where he did not have to suffer the discrimination experienced in his native land. There, he enjoyed early and sustained success, exhibiting at the annual official Salon more than 20 times and receiving the Legion of Honor in 1923. Nevertheless, he sold most of his work in America.

On a trip back home in 1893-1894 he created two African-American genre works, "The Banjo Lesson" and "The Thankful Poor," which may be his best-known paintings today. They led to hope that, as one writer put it, "the treatment of race subjects by him would serve to counterbalance so much that has made the race only a laughing-stock subject for those artists who see nothing in it but the most extravagantly absurd and grotesque." Tanner promptly gave up African-American genre forever in favor of religious works. Why, no one quite knows, though his own strong religious convictions surely played a part.

Most pertinent to the viewer of Tanner today is the obvious fact that, living at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, a time of great change in art, he was pulled in opposite directions. He is referred to in the catalog as a conservative artist, and indeed his subject matter was conservative. But his formal means of making a picture reflected a knowledge of the changes going on and incorporated some of them.

Loose and obvious brushstroke, impressionist-related handling of color and light, flattening of space and consciousness of the picture plane, virtually abstract compositions or passages of painting, even paint rubbed into unprimed canvas -- all can be found at one time or another in Tanner's work.

The Tanner who emerges from this exhibition is thus a fascinating and often surprising figure. Not least surprising is that the entire career of this man, who from his writings seems so sensible and methodical, came from a single inspiration. Born Pittsburgh to a churchman and scholar, he was living with his family in Philadelphia by the time he was 9 (after a brief stay in Baltimore in 1866 when his father was pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church). In 1872, walking with his father in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, he saw a man painting and decided to be an artist.

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