Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Henry O Tanner: His Life, Times, Art and Fame

 Among America’s and the world’s most accomplished academic artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century resplendently reside the works of Henry Ossawa Tanner. His paintings works on every level; composition, dramatic and distinctive lighting, attention to anatomy, textures and form. 

They are naturalistic, traditional, and technical feats of wonder. His master-works are tributes to his influences while remaining original. Every painting of the mature Tanner possesses his distinctive, incomparable, robust yet poetic style. Equally evident to the eye of the trained and the studied as well as to the untrained…the man was brilliant! He speaks to the ages.
Tanner was the son of an “African Methodist Episcopalian” minister, a scholar and an expatriate. He moved to France (the center of the art world at the time) in his effort to distance himself from the pervading inequalities of race and the intolerances he faced in the America he knew. He would produce the masterpieces we know to be his greatest in France. It was in France that he was to become unburdened and reach his maximum pinnacles of success and creativity.   

Ultimately it is the work that transcends and speaks to our times and undoubtedly into the future. Tanner; in his lifetime, was considered by many to be the fore most living painter of biblical themes and events. He had a marvelous knack and ability to reinterpret passages from the Bible in new and exciting ways while retaining a reverence rivaling the great masters of eras previous to himself.   “The Annunciation” and “The Raising of Lazarus” are among the works that speak to us as paintings of conviction and dedication as much and in ways equal to many sermons.    

The Genre paintings Tanner produced were startling! The subjects often featured African-Americans but were not exclusively or restrictively so. “The Banjo Lesson” and “The Thankful Poor” are simply stand-outs and almost iconic in stature. They speak to his depth of spirit and have inspired generations. Tanner; this son of Philadelphia, represents his most American of cities so well and so splendidly.

Henry O Tanner’s portfolio ranged from the biblical to portraiture, from landscape to anatomical studies and photography.  He studied and worked passionately as every committed artist has through all of history. With his uncanny sense of greatness and devotion, it was his wife that was his greatest inspiration. She modeled for a number of his most powerful works including “The Annunciation.” She is eloquently and lovingly depicted here.

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