Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

“I will preach with my brush”

An interview with a museum curator about the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner 165 years after his birth
Hannah Keegan

There is a medium sized painting towards the back of a large gallery room in the Cincinnati Art Museum that catches your eye immediately. It is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight Into Egypt and the blues that depict the night, outlining the three figures of the Holy Family, make the whole painting look as if it is glowing.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African American artist, born in Pennsylvania on June 21, 1859. Much of his work depicts scenes such as the Annunciation, Christ walking on the water, the resurrection of Lazarus, etc., highlighting his religious upbringing: his father served as bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his mother was formerly enslaved. His capacity to depict these traditional religious scenes in a new way – with new techniques – is striking and leaves you wanting to “meet” him, so we reached out to Dr. Anna O. Marley, Chief of Curatorial Affairs and Kenneth R. Woodcock Curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, to help us know more about his life and work. Dr. Marley curated an exhibit on Tanner’s work in 2012 and compiled a companion publication with essays illustrating the various ways his work is significant. Her most recent curatorial work is a traveling exhibit entitled “Making American Artists: Stories from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1776-1976” and it also features Tanner’s Nicodemus.

Tanner saw his art as a work of evangelization, saying once to his father that he would be a preacher in a different sense: preaching with his brush. “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” Here is a glimpse into his soul and his pictures.


What was it about Tanner that made you want to study him and his work?

I became fascinated by Tanner. Once I started seeing his works in person, they were stunning. His techniques are often very layered: you can see multiple layers of paint. Some of them almost look like glazed tiles because they seem to glow. And this feature dovetails really well with the spirituality he's trying to convey. There's this spiritual glow – the use of light – through his technique that conveys physically the spiritual identification he feels with the stories in the works of art. It is remarkable to have that combination of faith and artistic talent, to be able to convey his spiritual perception through his technical skill. I have also long been interested in black artists in the US and the challenges that they've had to face in order to receive the recognition of their white peers.

What was his upbringing in the US like? How did he discover his talent?

His family was incredibly involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His father was eventually a bishop in the church and he was at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, which was the birthplace of the church here in Philadelphia. I think Tanner would have been expected to become a minister, but he had some health issues. Before he became an artist, he worked in a flour factory but it was bad for his lungs. So, his family relented and said he could pursue art. His mother encouraged him and bought him brushes and paint after he saw an artist painting in Fairmount Park. Eventually he was able to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and he studied with Thomas Eakins.

Why did he end up in Europe after studying at PAFA?

Most of the professional artists who studied at PAFA in the late 19th century would continue their education in Paris. Originally, his intended destination was Rome, but he stopped in Paris and thought, “Why would I ever leave here? It's amazing.” So he studied at the Academy Julienne, a private art school attended by a number of artists from the US and around the world. He also felt accepted in France. He said, “In Paris, I am simply Monsieur Tanner, artist-American.” Whereas, when he was talked about in the American press during that time period, he was always described as a Negro artist. Like many others, he just wanted to be seen as an artist. So, going to Europe was something everyone did. Staying in Europe was a decision he made. And then he met his wife, Jesse Olsen, who was a white American, and their interracial marriage would not have been accepted in most places in the United States. She was an opera singer, so it also made sense for her to stay in Paris.

Tanner depicts classic Biblical scenes in many of his pieces – like the Annunciation or the flight into Egypt – but he does it in a way that seems new compared to Renaissance artists. What is this newness?

He was part of a group of religious painters in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century. Religious painting was quite popular, just as it was in the Renaissance, but in a different way. It was influenced by symbolism, so you had a whole group of artists out of Paris who were painting very symbolist religious scenes. They were popular in the salon and they sold well. Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus was bought by the French government. It's now in the Musée d'Orsay, but at the time it was in the Musée du Luxembourg, which was the French government's collection. It was one of his first breakthrough paintings where you see his extraordinary use of light:the light is coming from Christ and the tomb of Lazarus. What is different about Tanner is that he's a modern spirit. That is a phrase I took from a contemporary press review: he has “brought to religious art a modern spirit.” His painting of the Annunciation is the best example of that. The angel Gabriel is a column of light. That's all. It's not like Fra Angelico. There are no rainbow wings or personified figures. It's a beam of light. And his Mary is this humble everyday girl – a little scared and overwhelmed by what's happening to her. I think he is unique in his vision of how he's representing the scriptures.

And why does he use so much blue?

He switches to that blue palette later in his career. When he starts out with these salon paintings, like the Resurrection of Lazarus and the Annunciation paintings around that time period, they have something of an old master palette – like Rembrandt – a brown and gold, deep palette. In the early 20th century, he began to use these beautiful, glazed blues. One of the things that we think might have influenced him is that he travels to the Middle East. In Egypt, he visits a lot of mosques and churches, and he sees these beautiful blue tiles, which he brings back with him to Paris. At the same time, Paris is a major center of what is referred to as Orientalist painting. French painters who are traveling to North Africa and to the Middle East are bringing objects back to Paris. I think the exposure to that blue affected his palette choice.

Why is Tanner so interested in Mary? It isn’t so common for someone raised in a Protestant tradition, like the AME church, to have a devotion to her.

I think he was very interested and surrounded by strong women his whole life. His mother was incredibly well-educated and influential. In the AME church, she started like one of the first professional women's missionary societies. He also had really strong sisters, one of which went on to become a medical doctor. His wife, who's his model, is also very strong and professional. I think he was thinking about the centrality and power of women in Christianity and in his life in particular. One of my favorite paintings is The Three Marys. I love that the miracle is happening off the canvas, so that what you're seeing is the reaction of the three Marys to the miracle of arriving at the empty tomb. Tanner cares about depicting the response of the three women and not just showing the miracle itself. This makes so much sense to me because if you think about Jesus and what He was trying to do and who He was trying to help, you realize it is not just about Jesus’ actions, but about who He came for – and Tanner highlighting the reaction of the three Marys shifts the focus to that.

I am surprised that he has very few paintings of American life or of African American American life. Do you know why?

I have a very practical answer for that. I think that he would have painted more scenes of black life in America, like The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor, but nobody would buy them. You can see this aspect of religion and transmission between youth and old age in both of those paintings, which is fascinating. But he exhibited one at the salon, and it didn't win a prize. Whereas the religious paintings do win prizes, and he starts getting patrons who pay him to go to the Middle East and paint religious scenes. I think he would have liked to have more black patronage, but you have to also think about who had money to spend on paintings of that scale and size in that time period. For example, later he works with Mother Bethel AME Church to do a sculpture of Bishop Reverend Allen and his wife, Sarah. We have a plaster cast, but it was never poured into bronze because the church never had the money. So, the reason he has few pieces that portray Black life in America is a combination of deep religious feeling and the realities of the market.

When did he begin to have the same acclaim in the US as he was having in Europe?

I would say almost as soon as he was winning prizes at the Paris Salon he started to get popular in the US. His main patron was Rodman Wanamaker, who was the owner of Wanamaker's department stores in Philadelphia and New York. Rodman was the president of the American Art Association in Paris, so he would bring back Paris fashions and Tanner paintings to the US. Soon, other wealthy Protestant patrons throughout the Midwest and Northeast began buying his work. That's why you have paintings in Des Moines, Chicago, Cincinnati, etc. It’s a network of art patrons who are also religious who want to support his art.

Your work focuses on giving proper notice to the historically unnoticed, specifically artists of color and women artists. Yet, it struck me that Tanner doesn’t fit neatly into any category. He is not simply a Christian artist, or a Black artist, or a modern artist. How did he see himself?

That's a great observation. I write in my book that when he was illustrated in textbooks of American art, it's always The Banjo Lesson or The Thankful Poor that are featured. He's seen as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Somehow he is illustrated by those paintings depicting black life in America, even though he made most of his career out of religious paintings. In the 20th century, and even into the 21st, but less so now, there is a bias against representational art and religious art because it's not seen as modern. However, Tanner became quite abstract in his representations, folding in all kinds of things – not only the symbolist painting, but impressionism as well. His beautiful painting, Christ Walking on the Water, looks like a Monet. So he's looking at Monet and he's bringing that into religious paintings. That is really hard for people to categorize. It is the same with the Harlem Renaissance and Alain Locke, who really championed black artists. The momentum of that movement was in the early 20th century to celebrate black life and to look to Africa to create things that are very recognizably African American. Someone like Aaron Douglas would be a great example of that. And Henry Tanner doesn't fit into that box because he's painting very universal paintings that speak to a lot of different people from different faiths and backgrounds. That's what he's doing and it doesn't fit in the categorizations.