Thankful for Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Eakins - DetailIt 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:

The Thankful Poor - Tanner

He also did a lot of landscapes, although few as pure as Georgia Landscape:

Georgia Landscape - Tanner

Happy birthday Henry Ossawa Tanner!

0 thoughts on “Thankful for Henry Ossawa Tanner

  1. I don’t know why, but I have a huge hole in my artistic appreciation when it comes to painting. Maybe I’m just a film/photography baby, and I can’t appreciate something visual that comes entirely from an artist’s head.

    Not that I hate it; I like it fine. I just can’t appreciate painting the way I know I should. (I have something of the same problem with classical music; yes, I am a troglodyte.)

    That said, these paintings (and I looked at some more after reading this) just hit me immediately. It’s probably because they’re very similar to good cinematography. The fog line behind the trees in "Georgia Landscape" is positively CinemaScope.

    There’s an irony here. I imagine part of why movies captured the public’s eye was that they were huge. (Am I wrong, or did mural-style, huge painting become a thing in the 20s/30s after movies had gotten popular?) Now, skilled cinematographers labor over every bit of light diffusion to evoke the subtlest mood. And their work is watched on iPhones.

    One random addition: there are acclaimed female painters and acclaimed female photographers. There are almost zero female cinematographers. I wonder why that is. Probably some kind of old boys’ network. We have many accomplished female film writers and directors; there must be a "get your kooky ovaries away from my precious precision camera" cranky old fart thing going on.

  2. @JMF – Well, I was going to write an article and now I have to answer all your questions! ;-)

    The most basic thing that distinguishes good painters from bad is framing. So in that way, there really is no difference between a painter and a photographer. But painters can do things that photographers can’t. But the two art forms are coming together. There is a big trend in art toward multimedia works–for both painters and photographers. Whatever it takes.

    What I especially like about Tanner is his use of light in dark places. I have never seen any of his work live, but my experience is that the dark areas would have so much more detail than we can pick up on the screen.

    If you’re not that into painting, you really need to go to a good art museum. Digital reproductions do little justice to the art.

    Yeah, you’re totally right. I think Michelangelo got into murals after seeing [i]Birth of a Nation[/i]. Actually, I think we saw murals come back because of the political movements of the time. There was a philosophy of creating art for the masses who didn’t spend much time in museums.

    As for female cinematographers, well, it’s history. Why are there so many great female film editors? Because in the early days of filmmaking, it was thought that "cutting" was something best suited for women. Today, I think a lot of female cinematographers just go the whole way and become directors. But it is mostly sexism. Remember: it’s all union stuff. I don’t even know what a cinematographer is anymore. In the US it’s the lighting guy. But the primary cameraman is certainly as important, but no one outside the business even talks about that.

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