Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Literal Truth: Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Raising of Lazarus, 1896

The Annunciation, 1898

Henry Ossawa Tanner is best known as the preeminent African American artist of the 19th Century. He was Thomas Eakins' most successful student; so successful that Tanner's career eclipsed that of his teacher during their lifetimes. Tanner was a star in France, where he spent most of his working life (conditions of segregation in the United States made any such career impossible in his native country).
Tanner was also one of the most thoughtful religious painters of the 19th century, a sincere believer (unlike Eakins) who struggled with the issue of literalism. How to make meaningful visual imagery out of the experience of faith in a very positivist and literal minded age? Tanner certainly agreed with the legions of Romantic painters that preceded him that the traditional imagery of the Christian religion was moribund. His solution to this conundrum was similar to Eakins', but toward very different ends.
Tanner takes the path of archaeology, going to great lengths to reconstruct the settings, the costumes, and the people of ancient Roman Judea. The characters in his dramas are very pointedly and specifically Semitic, including the very Jewish Virgin Mary in his striking painting of the Annunciation.
What is remarkable about Tanner is that he paints two very supernatural and transcendent episodes from the Bible that definitely created difficulties for thoughtful people of the 19th century, secular and religious. He shows Lazarus waking up from death, and he shows the moment of the Incarnation. In the Annunciation picture, he concedes the limitations of his archaeological approach. Instead of resorting to a Fra Angelico type angel, he resorts to abstraction, insisting upon the transcendent otherness of something like an angel. He shows Gabriel as a long glowing streak of light, anticipating the transcendental abstraction of such 20th century artists as Kandinsky and Rothko.
What really makes Tanner's pictures is not their scholarship, but his very fine dramatic imagination, and a great sense of emotional calibration. The reactions and feelings of his characters seem just right; the reflection of Tanner's genuinely empathetic imagination.


BillyD said...

I've always loved that Annunciation...

Anonymous said...


If i may, are You suggesting that Kandinsky and Rothko were familiar with Tanner, or are You saying that it was "in the wind", SIR?

I resonate with Kandinsky and Rothko. Always have.

Counterlight said...

I'm saying that Tanner is resorting to abstraction to describe transcendent spiritual subject matter. Kandinsky and Rothko's work is entirely abstraction about things spiritual.
I doubt Kandinsky or Rothko knew Tanner's work.

susankay said...

And I like that Mary is really a teenager