Original Document
Original Document
Alain Locke on Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1936.

Periods in the cultural life of people do not always run to either the almanac or the historical calendar. Yet it is interesting to note that the Reconstruction period (1865-1890), was almost precisely the apprenticeship phase of Negro artists. And later we shall see that beginning with the date of the World War or thereabouts was the dawn of the contemporary period of Negro art. In between,–that is 1890 to 1914, was the journeyman period as we have called it, in which the Negro artist won world-wide recognition, won his freedom, in the world of art or, so to speak, his artistic spurs….The leading talent of this intermediate generation was Henry Tanner, whose career may be truthfully said to have vindicated the Negro artist beyond question of shadow of doubt or a double standard of artistic judgment.

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At home folk types had interested him; and some of his early work like "The Banjo Lesson" now at Hampton, showed a possibility that, had it developed would have made Tanner the founder of a racial school of American Negro art. But in Paris he took feverishly to one interest after the other, first animal sketches, then landscape, then peasant types, and finally through his interest in Jewish peasant types, religious Biblical subjects for which perhaps he is best known since this was the interest of his mature period. However later as we shall see, he shifted back to landscape painting, exotic North African scenes and types, and later still, technical studies and still life. So with the exception of portrait painting, Tanner has ranged through every major province of painting.

By 1896, Tanner had found an interest that made his fame, which, although apparently remote from any racial association, was spiritually close after all. For in the Paris Salon of 1896 he received honorable mention for a religious painting, "Daniel in the Lions' Den," with a curious combination of realism in the figure drawings and of mystical symbolism in other features, as the light of the presence of holiness at which the lions are portrayed blinking in stunned bewilderment. This seems a Negro note, even though the folk realism is a cosmopolitan one from another racial tradition.

With the assistance of Rodman Wanamaker, who still owns some of the best work of this period, Tanner went to Palestine, and from these experiences grew the great Biblical series that was to found his fame and fortune. It was the "Resurrection of Lazarus" exhibited in 1897 that the French government purchased for the Louxembourg Gallery Collection, the hallmark of contemporary fame. There followed "Christ on the Road to Bethany," "Christ at the Home, of Mary and Martha," particularly notable for its plain human realism, the "Return of the Holy Women," and then, with a striking shift from a dark sombre palette to an opalescent light-green and blue color scheme, such canvases as "Christ and Nicodemus on the Housetop," "The Five Virgins" and "The Annunciation."

Many of the above are in prominent American museums, the Carnegie Institute, the Wilstach Collection, Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy, Chicago Art Institute, Los Art Gallery; so that in addition to building up a solid reputation for the artist, the recognition of the Negro artist as an artist pure and simple became an accomplished fact. And as one medal award after the other recognized competitively the superior technique of a master painter, – the Lippincott prize in 1900, the silver medal of the Paris Exposition, 1900, similar awards at the Buffalo Exposition, the St. Louis Exposition, and finally the gold metal at San Francisco, and then the French Legion of Honor, Tanner became a magic symbol of the Negro's artistic aspiration and achievement.

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But for his enforced exile and the warrantable resentment of race as an imposed limitation, Tanner would have undoubtedly added a strong chapter to American regional art, in treating Negro types with as much mastery and more intimate understanding than came from white American contemporaries like Winslow Homer, Wayman Adams, Robert Henri….

Credit: Alain Locke, "The Negro Artist Wins His Spurs," in Negro Art: Past and Present (Washington, D.C.: Association of Negro Folk Education, 1936), 22, 23-25.
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