Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Still Life With Apples (1890)

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), an African American artist, was known internationally for his paintings that focus on spirituality and imagination. The son of a minister, Tanner often depicted biblical scenes, utilizing both his academic training and what he saw on his visits to the Middle East and Africa.

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the American Civil War. He enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1879, where he studied under Thomas Eakins. After Tanner made his debut in New York and opened an art studio in Philadelphia, he moved to Atlanta in 1889, initially to open a photography studio. His business was unsuccessful, but he later taught a course in drawing at Clark College (Clark Atlanta University). He would move to Paris the next year, due to racial discrimination in the United States. Tanner enrolled in the Academie Julian in Paris in 1891, studying under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He developed a looser, more poetic painting style in 1900, with which he rendered his travels around the world (Egypt, Algiers, Morocco, Jerusalem, etc.). Tanner made these journeys so that he could portray biblical figures and settings accurately.

The artist’s involvement in World War I and his wife’s death, in 1925, led him toward depression and altered his perspective on art in his later years. He would create less work that focused on biblical themes and more paintings of the war and portraits of African Americans such as Booker T. Washington; these later paintings stayed in his private collection. Tanner’s influence on other artists, especially African Americans, was notable, and he received many awards over the course of his life.

The Georgia Museum of Art owns a painting by Tanner, “Still Life with Apples” (1890), donated to its collection by Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson (along with other works of art by African Americans). Created before Tanner left the United States, it uses dark colors in the background to emphasize the light on the apples in the foreground. Other works by Tanner are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Des Moines Art Center; the Cincinnati Art Museum; PAFA and many more.

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