Painting comes to light after doves

ART

Family's treasured artwork, by a pioneering black artist, is shown in public for the first time

December 04, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

When the doves appeared, Stacey Roberts couldn't possibly have known that she was embarking on a journey that would lead her to identify a celebrated 19th-century painter's forgotten artwork - and a family history full of surprises.

Last March, as Roberts' beloved Great-Aunt Lucy lay dying in a Baltimore hospital, she asked Roberts to promise one thing: that she'd go to her aunt's home to find a painting - and keep it safe.

Roberts didn't know it at the time, but what her aunt called "the painting" was in fact a rare opaque watercolor by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the most famous African-American artist of the 19th century.

Unbeknown to anyone outside the family, it had been passed down through generations of Roberts' forebears for more than a century. Now Lucy Mason Reeves Jones, Roberts' 94-year-old great aunt, was passing it on to her favorite niece.

This week, the artwork Jones had kept in her possession for more than 50 years will occupy an honored place in the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris, which opens Wednesday.

The show, which focuses on the network of influences among Tanner and his contemporaries, marks the first time that The Good Shepherd has ever been exhibited publicly. Probably completed sometime in the 1880s or 1890s as an illustration for a religious periodical, it depicts a bearded man wearing a long robe standing outside a large building at night.

The scene, painted on thick watercolor paper in velvety tones of gray and black with white highlights, may refer to the biblical Parable of the Good Shepherd in the Book of John, in which Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who protects his flock from danger.

The image has a dark, brooding solemnity that is quite unlike Tanner's luminous oil paintings of religious subjects and makes the work a unique discovery. "It's fairly rare to find something like this now because Tanner is so celebrated. There's been a considerable amount of scouring around by collectors and museum curators for his works," says Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the BMA.

"A discovery like this would have been unusual at any time, but especially now because his works are so sought after."

Tanner, the first African-American artist to achieve international recognition, was born in 1859 in Philadelphia, the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins, the great American realist painter, and later opened his own studio in Philadelphia.

TannerTanner[From Page 1E]

He is best known for his sympathetic depictions of African-American life in works such as The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor, which he painted early in his career.

In 1891, Tanner moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1937. From the late 1890s on, he painted many religious subjects both in oils and watercolor.

"This is almost certainly the kind of thing that would have illustrated a biblical story rather than served as a study for a painting," says Steven Jones, a Philadelphia art dealer who recently helped the BMA acquire a portrait of Tanner's father painted by the artist.

"Tanner did illustrations for magazines in the 1880s, and though the subject matter here is something he came to in the late 1890s, the technique is the same," Jones notes.

"In his studies for paintings, he would use five, six or even seven colors on his brush simultaneously. So the monochrome palette here gives me the sense it was probably intended to be reproduced in a book or journal."

The circumstances under which the work turned up in Baltimore make it particularly significant for scholars and historians of Tanner's work.

"In this case, we have the work's provenance going all the way back to the artist, which is something we always hope for but rarely achieve," says the BMA's Fisher. "The fact that it has remained out of the public view until now, just as we were preparing this exhibition of Tanner's work, seems like wonderful providence."

Gathering of doves

This is where the doves come in. Roberts, 39, might never have been inspired to research the family history that surrounded Tanner's watercolor, had not her Aunt Lucy, on the last night of her life, whispered something else as well: "I will always be with you," she promised. The next day, she died.

Still in deep mourning, Roberts managed to find the painting in her aunt's modest frame house on West Lanvale Street and take it home for safekeeping. A few days later, the doves appeared.

At first, Roberts says, there were just one or two in the yard each morning when she left for work. But soon there were a dozen or more. One morning, Roberts counted 32 birds in her yard. She took it as a sign.

"That's when I realized Aunt Lucy had kept her promise, too," Roberts says. "She was still with me."

To honor her aunt's memory, Roberts began tracing her family's history through hundreds of old photographs, letters and official documents.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.