Though American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is frequently thought of as a realist and as an orientalist — for the Biblically themed works based on his trips to Palestine and other locations in the middle east, I came away from the current superb show of his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, with a different feeling — essentially that he was a painter of light.
That phrase can be applied to many painters, like J.M.W. Turner, the Luminists and the Impressionists, but in Tanner’s case, I’m using the phrase in a slightly different sense.
I was passingly familiar with Tanner’s work, from books and the few pieces in the collection of the Academy, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it wasn’t until I saw the array of his work collected in this exhibition that I was struck with his thematic use of light and dark.
In composition after composition in many of his later works, in ways both subtle and dramatic, Tanner uses value contrasts to create pools of light, at times like spotlights, to focus your attention and move your eye into his canvasses.
In many cases, particularly in his portrayal of keyhole shaped doorways and arches in the middle east, he works light within dark and dark within light, even to several levels, forming visual targets, and drawing you deep into his scenes.
Tanner was noted as a pioneering African American artist, one of the most influential and the earliest to receive worldwide recognition, though he downplayed his role in that capacity and concentrated on his efforts simply as a painter.
Tanner studied for a time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was a student of Thomas Eakins, and of Eakins’s student Thomas Hovenden, but he left before graduating, seeking to establish himself as a painter, photographer and teacher in Atlanta, Georgia.
His efforts met with less success than he had hoped, and though he found favor among key patrons, his general treatment as a black artist in late 19th century America was not conducive to the kind of life as a painter he envisioned.
It was with the support of patrons that he left the U.S. to study in Europe, enrolling in the Academie Julian in Paris. His reception and treatment in Europe was so much better than in the U.S. that he would spend the rest of his career there, punctuated with occasional trips back.
His paintings were well received at the Paris Salon, and his painting The Resurrection of Lazarus, now considered his masterpiece (image above, second down), was awarded a medal and immediately purchased by the French Government.
I have always been fond of his painting of The Annunciation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its wonderfully eerie depiction of the Angel Gabriel as column of vibrating golden light, but it wasn’t until I saw the range of paintings in this exhibition in which he played with light effects, from moons in cloudy skies to light cast against buildings to sunlight in doorways, that I really appreciated the depth of his exploration of that direction.
I also came away with a much greater appreciation of Tanner as a painter. Over the course of his career, he experimented with styles that ranged from academically polished to painterly to roughly textured topographies of paint across canvasses that played out the “paint as paint” sensibilities and color experimentation of expressionism and early modernism.
The current exhibition is notable for the number, quality and range of his works assembled, and the presence of The Resurrection of Lazarus, which is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay and has not been exhibited in the U.S. before.
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia until April 15, 2912. It then travels to the Cincinnati Art Museum where it will be on display from May 26 to September 9, 2012, and to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, from October 21, 2012 to January 13, 2013.
There is a catalog accompanying the exhibition.
In his experimentation with light, value, paint surface and visual texture, Tanner is extraordinary in his ability to be at once subtle and striking. Though I’m fascinated by those qualities of his paintings, I would think that Tanner always saw them as simply tools in his portrayal of human emotion, spiritual devotion and a celebration of the world as it revealed itself to him.