Saturday, January 12, 2008

Henry Ossawa Tanner

This is the first in a series of 'Guest Articles' written by readers of the Bible illustration blog. In the first one, Paul Green from Virginia talks about Bible artist Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
The first African-American artist to achieve international recognition and acclaim, his style has been described as “vital and transcendent” by fellow artist Romare Bearden.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to an affluent family, Tanner’s father was a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church and his mother Sarah Tanner, a teacher and former slave. Tanner left America for Europe in 1891 and enrolled in the Acadamie Julian in Paris, France. The cosmopolitan and liberal atmosphere of the city was a welcome relief from the racial prejudice he had encountered in America and it was during this period that he painted his acclaimed Biblical works.

After marrying white opera singer Jessie Macauley Olssen, Tanner returned to New York in 1903 for the birth of his son but decided to settle permanently in France. The scandal caused by an inter-racial marriage played a major factor in his decision.
Tanner visited the Holy Land an several occasions and his first hand experiences of the local atmosphere and colour of the region give his Biblical work an authentic quality. His muted palette in “Flight from Egypt” creates an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, fitting the subject matter.

The features of Jesus in “Nicodemus visits Jesus” have caused much discussion and some controversy through the years. Is Jesus portrayed as a black man or is his face merely dark because he is in the shadows? Tanner remained ambiguous. When asked he concluded, “No artist has ever produced a type, nor ever will” regarding a definitive racial and ethnic representation of Christ.
Tanner exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon and won an honorable mention for “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1923 and became the first African American to be inducted in to the National Academy of Design in 1927.
© Paul Green 2008.
Picture1 Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, 1899.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Joseph E. Temple Fund
picture 2 Flight into Egypt, 1899.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Founders Society Purchase, African Art Gallery Committee Fund

Other articles by Paul Green:
Carl Heinrich Bloch
Herbert Gustave Schmalz