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    Detail from Henry Ossawa Tanner's painting of the Annunciation to Mary.

    The Million Masks of God

    Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Art of Sympathy

    Nathan Beacom

    June 1, 2020
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    • Sherry

      Excellent article! Thank you for the dollop of hope today.

    • Peg Rizzo

      Beautiful, hope-filled article in these turbulent times. So grateful to have read it. Many thanks.

    • janet cameron

      startling and thorough article

    • Diane Beck

      I discovered Henry Ossawa Tanner when I was a young artist almost 50 years ago. The deep dignity of his human portrayals affected me profoundly, and he has been one of my favorite artists ever since. No one has done an Annunciation like Tanner.

    • Tom Crotty

      Very timely and hopeful at a time when hope feels hidden. Thank-you.

    Crucified on his own easel, Henry Tanner lay on the pavement on a cool Philadelphia evening. A clique of students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had tied the young painter, their only black peer, to his equipment and thrown him in the street. We know of this incident only from the perspective of its perpetrator – a decent etcher but reproachable person – Joseph Pennell. Tanner never mentioned it. His response to the sins of racism in his country tended more toward disappointment and heartbreak than anger, but there is no doubt that the injustice, meanness, condescension, and abuse with which he was treated affected and hurt him very deeply.

    In consequence, he spent much of his adult life in Paris, where society, including his community of American expats, was more welcoming. As Tanner grew in renown, the country that birthed him came to embrace him, with the top museums and collectors clamoring for his work and the papers showering praise upon his artistry. Today, though, most Americans have forgotten him. That’s a shame. Tanner’s art is a uniquely American affirmation of what is supposed to be the American creed: the equal dignity of all people.

    What struck Tanner most deeply about racism (he told a friend that a brief encounter on the street would nag at him for weeks) was the conflict it presented with his certainty that, like anyone else, he was a son of God. Race hatred (as he called it) was not just a personal attack, but an affront to divine justice. In a quiet way, his art was subverting the impulse to dehumanize by proclaiming in paint the dignity of the human person.

    In gallery 211 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, two paintings on opposite sides of the room draw natural crowds throughout the day. On the west side of the room is The Gross Clinic (1875), a masterwork by the city’s great painter, Thomas Eakins. The high drama and bloody realism of the subject – Dr. Gross demonstrating an operation on an infected femur – grabs hold of even the most distracted visitors.

    On the east side hangs a work of equal drama by Eakins’s protégé, the young man from Pittsburgh, Henry Ossawa Tanner. Where the Clinic is all motion and crowded figures, a chiaroscuro of stormy, obscure background and clinical white foreground, Tanner’s The Annunciation (1897) is warm, still, and quiet. This very stillness emphasizes the power of the heavens irrupting into earth. More than the blinding flash of Gabriel, though, visitors are captured by the gaze of Mary. This Mary has none of the rosy mist of pious kitsch; she is just a girl. She sits in peasant clothes on the edge of her bed, her hands folded in her lap and shoulders together as she looks up at the apparition. In her unsure eyes, we suddenly feel the whole nobility of the scene. Here is a teenager being asked to bear the fate of the world.

    Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Annunciation, 1898

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation Public Domain

    It was Henry Tanner’s principle that “he who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results.” As an audience, we can detect the difference between a figure who is painted from the outside and one who is inhabited from within. The religious art of his time, he thought, was too didactic, sacrificing artistic quality for moralism and “bogus” sentimentality. This produced biblical scenes that felt flat and fake – human in figure, but not in feeling. He had no place for mediocrity in the service of religious sentiment.

    “He who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results.”

    “My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting,” Tanner wrote, “but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.” Indeed, his painting succeeds precisely by showing us feelings that we somehow recognize, despite the wholly unfamiliar circumstances. The boundaries of time, geography, and race are not so opaque as to block the exchange of human sympathy; people are never so different as to be unrelatable.

    If Tanner met with bigotry from fellow students in Philadelphia, he also found great friends and supporters there. If he had the bad luck to meet a Joseph Pennell at school, he also found a Christopher Shearer, a landscape painter who encouraged Tanner to believe in his own gifts. He found tutelage and friendship in Eakins and also Thomas Hovenden, two white Pennsylvania painters who stood out among their peers for sensitive depictions of black subjects, in contrast to the degrading caricatures customary at the time.

    As Tanner became widely known, leading black intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois took interest in his success as a black artist, but his own feelings about being classified by race were sometimes ambivalent. He was proud of the fact that his work was showing that black people belonged in the world of high art as much as anyone, but he wished that he could be referred to more often simply as an “artist.”

    Still, his body of work is an effort to wipe away the obscuring film of racism and encourage viewers to see its subjects as human beings. Take, for instance, The Thankful Poor, a painting done in Philadelphia in 1893, which depicts an old man and a boy of about ten saying grace before a simple supper. This was a theme executed in various ways by European painters with peasant subjects, but Tanner’s painting stands out against such scenes by its lack of pietism or condescension. In the bowed and weary head of the old man and the boy whose eyes are closed in conversation with God, the artist captures a very ordinary sort of strength, a gesture of gratitude in the face of deprivation.

    The Thankful Poor, a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor Public Domain

    Having spent some years painting landscapes, marine scenes, and animals, and teaching at Clark College in Atlanta, Tanner got the European itch common to American artists. He raised some funds and went off toward Rome. Before he could reach Italy, however, he encountered Paris, and was so happy with it that he simply settled in.

    In Paris, he became a part of the local art scene and continued his studies at the Academie Julien, where he was noted as a uniquely strong draughtsman. His Study of a Negro Man (1891) shows his virtuosity in drawing and the luminosity of his work with charcoal. A bout with typhoid fever sent him back to Philadelphia for a time, but he soon returned to Paris, with his greatest successes ahead of him.

    In 1896, his Daniel in the Lions’ Den was accepted at the Paris Salon. The following year, his The Resurrection of Lazarus won a medal at the Salon, a rare achievement for an American, and it was purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg.

    Some historians and critics have wondered why Tanner left behind genre paintings and paintings of black American life after his return to Paris. It has been suggested that European audiences simply did not appreciate those subjects; such was the thrust of a 1894 Daily Evening Telegraph article on Tanner’s move to Paris. The art historian Naurice Frank Woods Jr. and other scholars have pointed out, however, that the change in his focus came from a personal covenant he had made to serve God through his art. Turning his attention to religious themes was an outgrowth and continuation of his concern for his fellow black Americans, and not a denial of it. Tanner’s father, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, held that the Bible was a dangerous book to any bigot, because the Gospel is a proclamation that all people are beloved children of God. He would point to passages such as Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

    Black Christians such as the Tanners recognized this as the real truth despite the perversions of scripture carried out by plantation owners, slavery apologists, and other racists. They saw instead the biblical promises of liberation from captivity, a program for justice.

    a painting of the resurrection of Lazarus

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus Public Domain

    The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896) can be viewed in this sense. Commentators like Dewey F. Mosby and Darrel Sewell have suggested in this painting an allegory for the emancipation of the slaves, but there’s even more to it than that. For Tanner, the freedom from earthly bondage was itself a symbol for freedom from slavery to selfishness, hatred, and wickedness writ large.

    By their presence, all humanity is shown to be involved in the calamitous miracle that is unfolding.

    In Tanner’s rendering of this spectacular event, the whole setup is unusual. In the gospel of John, Jesus stands outside the cave and calls for Lazarus to come out. But Tanner arranged the scene with precise intention, crowding into the cavern people of multiple races and backgrounds. By their presence, all humanity is shown to be involved in the calamitous miracle that is unfolding. Here we find the consistent message of Tanner’s work: that each of us has a share in the divine life, and it is ours to rise up to.

    His contemporary G. K. Chesterton expressed a similar vision of the divine image appearing in each human face. The poem “Gold Leaves” serves as an apt description of Tanner’s own work: “But now a great thing in the street/seems any human nod / Where shift in strange democracy / The million masks of God.”

    Two decades after Tanner’s death in 1937, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain gave a series of lectures reflecting on his own experience of living in America. He admitted that, before fleeing France in World War II, he had shared the common anti-American prejudices of the European elite. America had no sense of history, no feeling for the spiritual, the artistic, or the transcendent. America was the great “death-continent,” as D. H. Lawrence had put it, obsessed with creating ever bigger and noisier machines and with finding ever more conspicuous ways to consume.

    Having seen America firsthand, Maritain’s perceptions radically changed. What typified America, he came to believe, was not just that it was furthest along the road of industrialized modernity, but that it was also engaged in an effort to humanize and make that change moral. It did so through its insistence on egalitarian manners, through its social movements, its churches, and its art. He pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and T. S. Eliot as American artists who had grappled with the spiritual challenge of preventing material progress from suffocating the human spirit. Could America advance in the struggle against its original sin of racism, could it rise above materialism, could it stand credibly as a symbol of human brotherhood?

    “What the world expects from America is that she keep alive, in human history, a fraternal recognition of the dignity of man,” Maritain said. America has failed that expectation over and over, even to this very day. But this is the national promise and possibility against which it must be corrected and toward which it must always strive.

    Tanner’s work affirms this vision. He dearly loved his country and, even as he rued its broken promises, he held out hope for a more just future. In his paintings, human dignity is paramount, borne of the conviction that God lived, suffered, and died out of love for every member of the human family.

    In his final years, Tanner could look back and reflect on a life of personal hardship, on a world war and a pandemic, on bigotry at home and alienation abroad. Ahead of him, he could see the specters of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia rising in the distance. Tanner often returned in his work to the theme of the Good Shepherd, the one who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search unceasingly for one lost lamb. This was a message so contrary to the authoritarian bloodshed that he would, perhaps mercifully, miss. Woods notes that Tanner would often paint to renew his faith in the face of tribulation. As conquering powers made ready to decide who counts and who doesn’t, which lives matter, Tanner meditated on the notion that every sheep was valued by God.

    “Who dares limit the power of the grace of God to his erring children?”

    “Race hate,” Tanner sometimes felt, was almost incurable by human means, but “who dares limit the power of the grace of God to his erring children”? This comment came in a 1935 letter to an American minister, the Reverend Lavens M. Thomas II, who had asked permission to use Tanner’s 1906 painting The Two Disciples at the Tomb in a special prayer service for racial justice. Thomas wanted his congregation to believe that redemption was possible. The faces of the disciples, Thomas wrote, seem to be saying “this news is too good to be true,” and we, likewise, might think that “justice rising as it were from the ashes of race hatred” is too good to be true. But Reverend Thomas could see some hearts were beginning to change, and wanted his congregation to trust that the God who conquered sin and death could conquer wickedness in the human soul.

    The artist was happy to lend permission: “That you finally win the day, there will be little doubt,” he wrote. “I only think myself fortunate if the picture will in however small degree bring the thoughts and actions of my fellow man closer to our Lord and Master.”

    Contributed By Nathan Beacom Nathan Beacom

    Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His work on agriculture and the environment and other subjects has appeared in Civil Eats, America Magazine, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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