PHILADELPHIA -- The strongest, strangest quality of Henry Ossawa Tanner's art is its complete lack of rage. Had he been a hater, who of us could blame him? Tanner (1859-1937) was familiar with the rawest racial prejudice. He was tortured by white bigots because he was black, and scorned by some black nationalists because, at least by their lights, he wasn't black enough. The man was so accustomed to insincere approval, patronizing kindness, astonishing success and offhanded dismissal that he must often have felt no one could be trusted. And yet no touch of bitterness corrodes his shining retrospective, which goes on view today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Looking at his glowing works -- some are lighted by hearthside warmth, some by moon-blue mysteries -- one cannot help but feel that his piety preserved him. His best, most touching pictures (many of them biblical, most of them produced in France, where he chose to live) are works of heartfelt poetry. Had Tanner had less faith -- in mankind or in Jesus, in the future of black people or the blessings of art -- he'd have been torn apart.
In the early 1880s, when the artist was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he was forced to undergo a sort of public crucifixion. One night some hazing racists attacked him at his work there, bound him tightly to his easel and then dragged him into Broad Street, where they left him to the hooting laughter of the crowds. Tanner, while a student, was attacked by black folk too, who jeered him on the street for hanging out with whites. Some of his companions were men of decency and honor -- for instance, Thomas Eakins, that most scrupulous of painters, who taught at the Academy, and painted Tanner's portrait, and befriended him for life. Some were racists -- for instance, Joseph Pennell, who was surprised "the octoroon" did not stink "though the room was hot."
It would be nice to think that such stereotyping was at last behind us, that Tanner, now that he's been dead for more than half a century, could at last be judged without reference to his color. Booker T. Washington, the painter's friend, had such a hope in mind when, in 1901, he wrote of seeing Tanner's pictures on display in the Luxembourg in Paris:
"Few people ever stopped, I found, when looking at his pictures, to inquire whether Tanner was a Negro painter, a French painter, a German painter. They simply knew that he was able to produce something that the world wanted -- a great painting -- and the matter of his color did not enter into their minds."
Would that that were true. But it wasn't then, and isn't now. Whether we are white or black, few of us are colorblind. Most of us view Tanner still -- perhaps we cannot help it -- through the prism of his race.
That prism has been used of late to project a puffed-up, hard-edged image of a kind of super-Tanner. It may comfort us to see him as a poet of his people, and a champion of black pride who used his brush to tear apart old, demeaning stereotypes, and as a man dishonored in his native land who had to flee to paint, but that image is misleading. When the Ford Motor Co. (which contributed $500,000 to the Tanner exhibition) describes him as "the foremost African American artist at the turn of the century," or when the Philadelphia Daily News (which put out an eight-page supplement devoted to his show) calls him "a true African-American hero," and when columnist Chuck Stone condemns "America's slow awakening to Tanner's genius, while the French government was acclaiming him a chevalier in the Legion of Honor," they are adding to a portrait that is only partly true.
The real Henry Tanner, the painter that this show presents, is a far more subtle figure. He did not make simple art.
The most famous of his pictures -- "The Banjo Lesson," for example, or his portrait of his mother, or "The Thankful Poor" owned by Bill and Camille Cosby -- portray black Americans. But they're extremely rare.
There are more than 100 Tanners in the Philadelphia exhibit. Fewer than half a dozen portray aspects of black life.
Tanner much preferred to paint the Holy Land and Normandy and visions from the Bible. The adjective "African American" sits a bit uneasily on his soft and dreamy visions. They're not especially African, or especially American. He's been frequently chastised -- by black scholar Alain Locke, by the late Guy McElroy and many other writers -- for his clear disinclination to paint pictures of black people, but Tanner preferred not to. Instead, he chose to specialize in pious and poetic Northern European High Victorian art.
It is also wrong to see him as rejected by America. This country gave him major honors, important exhibitions, sales and applause. His paintings were displayed 10 times at the Art Institute of Chicago, 15 times at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh and 16 times at the Pennsylvania Academy before he was inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 1923. In 1904 he won a silver medal in Saint Louis; in 1906 he won Chicago's Harris Prize (beating out 350 paintings by his countrymen); in 1915 he took the gold medal at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition; in 1909 he was elected (with Mary Cassatt and George Bellows) an associate of the American Academy of Design. Mostly he sold pictures not in Europe, but in America. Tanner in his prime was an art star here at home.
He was not really a rebel or a radical, a breaker of the rules. Instead he found, in painting, a way of keeping faith with the lessons he had learned in his extraordinary home.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (his middle name derived from Osawatomie, Kan., where John Brown began his antislavery campaign) was the child of achievers. His mother, Sarah, had been born a slave. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (which W.E.B. Du Bois described as "the greatest Negro organization in the world"), was an editor and scholar who read Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and urged his children onward to astonishing success. The painter's sister, Halle, was the first female black physician licensed in Alabama. One of his brothers-in-law was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's law school, another was the first black to be granted a University of Pennsylvania PhD.
That Tanner's finest paintings have an academic spirit should not be surprising. His devout Christianity, his scholarly researches and his glad acceptance of professional competition all suggest deep loyalty to family and home.
His best-known genre paintings -- "The Banjo Lesson," "The Bagpipe Lesson," "The Young Sabot Maker" and "The Thankful Poor" -- show age instructing youth. They hymn familial piety, be their subjects white or black.
So too -- in more subtle ways -- do the many warmly shadowed or eerily moonlit Bible scenes that dominate this show.
In their moodiness, their colors, their mysterious spirituality and their accurate reportage -- Tanner often traveled to North Africa and Palestine and depicted much he saw there -- these mysterious pictures blend dream with observed fact. The Jesus in these pictures is a teaching Jewish rabbi, not some tall blue-eyed good-looker in a white and spotless robe. The Mary who appears in "The Annunciation" is less a glorious queen than a pious, frightened peasant girl cowering on a rumpled bed; the angel in her bedroom is not some winged demigod, but a pillar of pure light. The brushwork in these paintings sings of searching and of freedom; their colors are original, their visions deeply felt.
Tanner, like Gauguin and many other French painters of the time, spent summer months in Brittany, in Pont-Aven and Concarneau, where he was much moved by the simplicities of rural life and the pieties of the peasants. Like many writers of the period (from Anatole France to Joseph-Ernest Renan), he tried to re-imagine Jesus as a teacher of the common folk, as a humble-yet-exalted blend of God and man.
Less rough-hewn than Rouaults', less picky in their details than most late-19th-century Orientalist productions, these freely painted Bible scenes -- with their touches of pure light and their weird transparent hills -- are in their own subtle ways hymns to liberation. They are Tanner's finest pictures. Far more than his earlier sentimental genre scenes, they demonstrate the promise of humble folk exalted, of salvation yet to come.
Tanner's path to freedom avoided the destructive. The painter, in his Bible scenes, kept faith with Tom Eakins, as he kept faith with his father, that devout scholar-teacher, as he kept faith with the viewers, American and French, white as well as black, he sought to teach and serve.
This touring retrospective may well disappoint black nationalist aestheticians who wish Tanner had developed a distinctively African American art for the African American people, but it is clear from what he painted that he had something else in mind. He wasn't a radical. He wasn't a politician. Like other black Americans of the late 19th century, he'd been flogged by injustice, but still he kept alive a most delicate integrity.
His people had been slaves. Tanner understood that. Yet he himself had achieved real liberation. The original and moving, decent and devout paintings that he left us are the works of a free man.
The Tanner catalogue, by Dewey F. Mosby of Colgate University and Darrel Sewell of the Philadelphia Museum, is an admirable work. It includes a moving essay by Rae Alexander-Minter, a grand-niece of the painter. Though the painter's father taught for years in Washington, and though the National Museum of American Art, thanks to Warren Robbins, owns the country's largest collection of Henry O. Tanner's pictures, this touring exhibition will not be seen in the capital. It will travel to Detroit, Atlanta and San Francisco after closing in Philadelphia on April 14.