`Tanner and the Lure of Paris' opens at the BMA




On a blue-green sea under stormy skies, the amazed disciples stand unsteadily in their wave-tossed boat to witness a miracle: Christ, appearing as a shining column of pure light, is walking on the waters.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, the greatest African-American artist of the 19th century, painted this scene in 1907, nearly two decades after he had moved to Paris from his native Philadelphia. It is a work redolent of deep religious feeling and the brilliant color and lighting effects for which Tanner was famed, and it is one of the highlights of the intriguing exhibition Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The show of about 40 works by Tanner and his contemporaries examines the network of influences that shaped his art, from religious-themed etchings of Rembrandt and landscapes of Corot and Daubigny to the Impressionism of Pissarro and Degas and the pictorial photography of Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Tanner was the first African-American artist to win an international reputation, but throughout his career he struggled with the question of whether he was a black artist first or simply an artist who happened to be black.

He was born in 1859 to free black parents and grew up in an America in which blacks continued to bear the stigma of slavery and a cruelly restricted second-class citizenship. Tanner's father, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was also a community activist and civil rights leader, and he instilled in his son a passionate concern for social justice that the artist would later express in sympathetic genre pictures of ordinary African-American life.

Tanner personally experienced the bitter indignities of racism as a student of Thomas Eakins in the 1880s at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts (he was only the second African-American to attend that prestigious institution), where a group of bigoted classmates often made him miserable with their pranks.

At the same time, Tanner's talent was undoubted. After finishing his studies in 1885, Tanner opened his own studio in Philadelphia, then tried his hand at photography in a portrait business he set up in Atlanta.

Neither venture proved a great financial success, but they gave Tanner valuable professional experience and strengthened his commitment to further his studies abroad.

Tanner was headed for Italy when he finally sailed for Europe in 1891, but a stopover in Paris convinced him that the City of Light was where his future lay. He returned to the United States the next year to recover from a serious illness, but after 1893 he settled permanently in France and remained there until his death in 1937.

In France, Tanner believed he could be judged on his abilities as an artist rather than by the color of his skin. He threw himself into studying the works of both his contemporaries and the great masters of the past.

Today, Tanner is best known for the genre pictures he painted early in his career, such as The Banjo Lesson (1893) and The Thankful Poor (1894), which affirmed the humanity of his African-American subjects and which are so different in feeling from the stereotypical images of blacks as grinning buffoons made popular by mass-market print publishers such as Currier & Ives and others.

But from the late 1890s onward, Tanner increasingly turned to religious subjects and landscape for inspiration. He made several trips to Egypt, Palestine and Italy, where he recorded images that coincided with the early 20th-century fashion for "Orientalism" -- fanciful depictions of luxury and unbridled sensuality that accompanied Europe's colonial expansion into the region.

Tanner most often appropriated the region's colorful landscape and exotic costumes to recast the biblical stories of his youth and their moral lessons in modern terms.

In Christ Learning to Read (1911), for example, Tanner posed his wife and young son as Mary and Jesus wearing the flowing garb of Near Eastern peasants. The painting is executed in the overall blue-green palette that became the artist's signature, with warm-toned highlights and luminous flesh tones.

During the 1920s, Tanner was criticized by contemporaries such as the Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke for failing to use his gifts to help establish a "distinctive tradition" of African-American art that others could develop further.

Yet Tanner's achievement ultimately transcended Locke's narrow racial agenda. By winning widespread recognition purely on the basis of the quality of his art, Tanner paved the way for later generations of African-American painters to work in any style they wished and still be taken seriously as artists.

The BMA show is a thoughtful examination of the historical and artistic context that made Tanner's breakthrough possible, and it is also one of the loveliest collections of images of this or any age in recent memory.


If you go Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris is at Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, through May 28. Call 410-396-7100 or visit artbma.org.

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