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Technology Enables the Exploration of the Work of the First Black American Painter with International Recognition

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tags: African American history, art history, Henry Ossawa Tanner



I just met Henry Ossawa Tanner. Nice trick, since he died in 1937. Tanner was the first African American artist with an international reputation. His paintings are in many museums, but I've walked past them countless times. Now, preparing for this column, I got to know a bit about his life and times (as well as new revelations about his artistic thinking) and thought I'd make the introductions.

Quite the gentleman. Born in Pittsburgh, 1859. Grew up in Philadelphia. Died an expatriate in Paris. "He saw right away that he could do better in France," says Dallas Museum of Art curator Sue Canterbury.

He was having trouble getting into the art classes he wanted — and finding teachers who'd take him on. In France, skin color didn't matter as much. He told a magazine writer, "in Paris no one regards me curiously. I am simply M[onsieur] Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears."

The French liked his work. In 1897, the government bought one of his pieces for the state collections. With that rare honor his reputation soared. Museums started buying Tanners. By 1900, when mass reproductions of Christ's portrait and books on his life were circulating, curator Canterbury says, "Tanner was considered the leading European painter of religious scenes."

It's a lovely image, with what came to be called "Tanner blue" — a color that became his signature. Tanner's models were his wife, Jessie Olsson (Swedish American from San Francisco; she was studying opera when Tanner met her in Paris), and their son Jesse. Family influence is at the heart of Tanner's religious works. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. The family was highly educated, and Canterbury says their home was "a center of black cultural life," in Philadelphia.

Christ and his Mother Studying the Scriptures is one of two Tanners on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through early January. Conservation work was done on both, and X-rays and infrared photography revealed surprises and insights into the artist's thought process.

"Conservation never gets old," says conservator Laura Hartman. "There's always an 'aha!' moment." In this one, when the painting was turned horizontally, x-rays showed another composition underneath. Two draped figures in a landscape. Aha! Nobody had seen them before. Tanner gave up on them, and turned to the Holy Family instead.

The other Tanner in Dallas (both paintings presented in conjunction with the Art Bridges Foundation) was done early in his career. Scholars call this a "genre" painting — a glimpse of ordinary daily life.

Read entire article at NPR

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