When thinking of great American artists of the 19th century, one might think of John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer or James McNeill Whistler. However, one that may escape the mind is Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner was an internationally acclaimed American, and one of the most influential African American painters of the 19th century.
This past Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., in an event sponsored by the UNCG School of Art, Lloyd International Honors College and the African American and African Diaspora Studies Program, UNCG AADS professor, Dr. Frank Woods, held a lecture in the Weatherspoon Art Museum, on his new biography titled “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Art, Faith, Race, and Legacy.” The biography examines Tanner’s life and development as artist, as well as the ways he navigated the art world as an African American.
Woods’s mentioned that his initial research on Tanner came about in grad school, saying “He is part of the reason why I went to grad school.” Woods continued to discuss how, in his four years of undergrad as an art major at UNC Chapel Hill, black artists were never taught, or even mentioned. When Woods went on to UNCG to get his MFA, he said, black artists still went unmentioned.
“So I just took it upon myself to dig a little deeper. I figured there had to be some type of African American art,” said Woods.
Woods was particularly inspired to study Tanner after uncovering a family connection. He discovered that his first cousin married had Tanner’s great nephew.
In his lecture, Woods took the audience on a journey through Tanner’s life. Born in Pennsylvania in 1859, Tanner was born to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Tanner, a woman who was born into slavery but escaped up north through the Underground Railroad. Tanner’s middle name, Ossawa, was given to him by his father out of respect for John Brown, an abolitionist, in reference to his anti-racist efforts in the Battle of Osawatomie.
At 13, while walking through Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Tanner was inspired to be an artist after seeing an artist paint scenery. From that moment on, Tanner began painting and drawing as much as he could. Due to his poor respiratory health, Tanner often went to the mountains for fresher air. This is credited as the source of his many paintings depicting nature.
In 1879, Tanner attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was the only black student. While he was accepted into the academy, his white peers did not expect the artistic genius that Tanner displayed. Jealousy and racism from Tanner’s colleagues was so intense, that one day Tanner was tied to an easel and left out in the middle of the street in humiliation.
The severe racism in the United States led Tanner to move to Paris, France. There his life took a dramatic turn in the art world, and for years to follow, his paintings reached critical acclaim.
Some of Tanner’s most famous paintings include “The Banjo Lesson,” “The Thankful Poor” and “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” which won Tanner recognition. Tanner’s painting style is stresses realism and chooses to depict everyday life in immense detail. Woods believes Tanner’s genius and artistic ability should be studied more often in the art world. Tanner, Woods said, shaped the way he teaches art today. “Hopefully, anybody who teaches American art of the 19th century is including [Tanner]. He’s my foundation,” said Woods, “Tanner goes as far as you can go in the academic art world…he sets the standard.”
His biography of Tanner, Woods said, was built off his 1993 dissertation, it was, he said, “a continual process of learning and researching.” The actual writing of his book, Woods said, took about a year, but it was based on 20 years of him collecting information on Tanner.
What Woods wants people to take away from his biography on Tanner, is, “That in any conversation of American art in the 19th century, [Tanner] needs to be near or at the top of the list. Not just as an African American artist; it goes way beyond that. I want people to know that he was as gifted as any white artist.”