At the National Museum of American Art, late afternoon sunlight bathes the muted blues and grays of Henry Ossawa Tanner's "Abraham's Oak." It seems fitting. Respected by critics but largely unknown to the public, Tanner is finally having his moment in the sun. The Philadelphia Museum of Art just opened a retrospective of the black artist's work; simultaneously, Washington filmmaker Casey King has released "Henry Ossawa Tanner, African American Painter."

Born in Philadelphia in 1859, Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He earned recognition for his studies of ethnic subjects but, dejected by the limitations placed on black artists, fled in 1890 to Paris, where he turned his talents to biblical subjects in the style of the French Academicians. In 1923, he received the Legion of Honor for his contribution to the arts. Black American leaders -- among them Booker T. Washington -- urged him to return to the United States, but Tanner remained in Paris, saying he wished to be recognized for his art, not his race.

Intrigued by Tanner, King quit his Wall Street brokerage job in 1987, left New York City and relocated to Washington to research and write a screenplay on the life of the enigmatic artist. "I chose Washington because it's rich in intellectual, cultural and artistic expressions of the African-American experience," King says.

He got grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the District Humanities Council, and enlisted an advisory board of Smithsonian curators, Howard University professors and local documentarians. He admits, however, that along the way some in the local film and academic communities balked at the idea of a white man being the one to champion the cause of a black artist. "The idea of 'cultural baggage' -- of art being divided along racial lines -- is hard to fight," he says.

As King's artistic struggles began to mirror Tanner's, the film project seized control of his life. In August, he quit his job teaching fourth graders at a Northeast D.C. public school and devoted himself full time to Tanner.

"If I'd known the obstacles I'd face, I might not have begun the project," he says now. "But I felt I had come to know Tanner, and I was sure of the integrity of the piece. {The film} would be no black iconography, but a film with contemporary resonance, a sympathetic evaluation of the struggle between racial and artistic identity."