Hot on the heels of Monet in Giverny, this summer the Cincinnati Art Museum showcases the life and legacy of pioneering African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner in Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. A full-scale retrospective, Modern Spirit is a provocative examination of one man’s journey to discover a pictorial language capable of expressing an intense religious feeling.
Born in 1859, the son of an African Methodist Episcopalian minister and an escaped slave, Tanner professed an interest in art at age 13 after witnessing a painter at work in Fairmount Park near his Philadelphia home. Tanner’s father, keen to discourage his son’s interests, hoped that he might find more conventional employment. But by age 21, Tanner had enrolled at the highly regarded Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts under the tutelage of the great realist Thomas Eakins.
Tanner’s earliest works in Modern Spirit reveal a competent, if unremarkable talent. Originally intending to pursue wildlife painting, Tanner’s “Pomp at the Zoo,” a picture featuring a caged lion pawing at a hanging slab of red meat while surrounded by darkly dressed onlookers, is frankly a pretty lousy painting. But the young Tanner was a quick study, and later works such as “Boy and Sheep Under a Tree” and “Study for Androcles” display flashes of brilliance.
Eventually settling down in Georgia in 1888, Tanner took up a two-year post at Clark College. Like the early works from his Academy days, the paintings on display from this period are little more than a hodgepodge of nondescript landscapes, such as the lackluster “Mountain Landscape, Highlands, North Carolina.” It is not until Tanner’s 1891 sojourn to Europe, financed by the sale of work from his first solo show held here in Cincinnati, that his painting truly springs to life.
Enrolling at the Academie Julian in France, Tanner’s quest for a personal vision of art began in earnest and it was around this time that he created two of his most iconic works, “The Banjo Lesson” and “The Thankful Poor,” both of which are tragically absent from the current exhibition
In “Christ and His Disciples on their way to Bethany” we encounter an ethereal scene dominated by the full moon beaming in the night sky. The spiritual and symbolist overtones that blanket the dreamy landscape on which Christ and his disciples walk feel truer to an experience of God in nature than any of Tanner’s more formal depictions of Biblical stories, though his take on the “Annunciation” is packed with real drama.
The evening scene, clearly a favorite, eventually comes to dominate Tanner’s works, his use of blue becoming so prevalent that one wonders if Tanner has forgotten about the other colors on his palette. But quiet evocations of French provincial life such as the intimate “Fisherman’s Devotions, Etaple” or the weathered “The Fisherman’s Return” appear as gauzy azure memories frozen in time. Intensely aware of his own surroundings, Tanner records the activities of workers, peasants and fisherman and imbues them with a sense of spiritual dignity.
Unlike the many painters of the era, Tanner didn’t directly engage with the formal developments of modernist painting. Undoubtedly aware of the efforts occurring around him, Tanner held fast to his interest in Christian themes but incorporated some experimental approaches to constructing the picture’s surface. Often combining oil and tempera to create lavishly textured surfaces as in his seriously gnarly 1925 piece “Flight into Egypt.”
It’s worth mentioning that Modern Spirit is organized thematically rather than chronologically. That’s certainly a hot curatorial trend these days, but it’s problematic for those interested in Tanner’s development as a painter. Once the show’s emphasis shifts to Tanner’s European works we frequently get a strange brew of salon-style academicism and impressionist-inspired paint handling displayed side by side in the same room. That may not perturb the average museumgoer, but I found it incredibly irritating.
Modern Spirit reveals Henry Ossawa Tanner to have been a thoughtful and capable painter, and his drawings would give even Ingres a run for his money. While “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” “The Annunciation” and “Christ and His Disciples” are undoubtedly amazing, the truth is, there is a lot of forgettable work here as well. Is this retrospective the best representation of Tanner’s oeuvre? I’m not convinced.
HENRY OSSAWA TANNER: MODERN SPIRIT is on view through Sept. 9 at the Cincinnati Art Museum (cincinnatiartmuseum.com).