It would be fun to write about Mary McCarthy today, given her decades long argument with Lillian Hellman. But regardless that McCarthy was the more serious political thinker, Hellman was the great writer. In a hundred years, people will still be performing The Children’s Hour, while McCarthy will be a footnote, which doesn’t take anything away from her; most of us will never even be footnotes.
On this day in 1859, the great American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner was born. The son of a free black man and an escaped slave mother, he grew up in Pittsburgh. There is a tendency to think of the United States at that time as being divided into the racist south and non-racist north. But that wasn’t true at all. The issue was slavery. Racism was the norm everywhere. As a young man, Tanner found it impossible to become a painting apprentice, because painters simply wouldn’t take on African Americans. Eventually, he was allowed into the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The timing was good, because the great realist painter Thomas Eakins had recently begun teaching there, where he revolutionized the study of art. Tanner became one of his favorite students and even did him the honor of painting his portrait, displayed at the beginning of this article. You can definitely see the influence. But I find Tanner’s work far more compelling. For one thing, Eakins was primarily a portrait painter. Tanner’s subjects were far more diverse. He had a particularly interesting approach to religious painting, which is what he spent most of his later years on.
I’m most fond of his paintings of everyday life. This best known painting is The Banjo Lesson, which in addition to its thematic value makes use of intense shadows, which is typical (though not universal) in his work. From the same period (probably with the same models), is The Thankful Poor:
He also did a lot of landscapes, although few as pure as Georgia Landscape:
Happy birthday Henry Ossawa Tanner!