Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Street Scene, Paris, c. 1890s
Although he is best known for his religious paintings and a handful of African American genre scenes, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s pastel drawing Street Scene, Paris (c. 1890s) displays the contemplative mood that characterizes his work as a whole. The dark palette of blues and blacks suggests a nighttime scene, while the yellows read as reflections of light off the street. The narrow range of colors makes it possible to focus on the subject matter, which emanates serenity. Tanner’s use of pastels, which allows for the blending of color within his muted palette, adds to that feeling.
Tanner completed this work in Paris, where he lived off and on from the 1890s to his death in 1937. He traveled to France after his unsuccessful attempt at opening a photography studio in Atlanta and in response to the racial discrimination he faced in the American art world. While in Paris, Tanner was introduced to portraiture and religious themes while studying with Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens.
Tanner’s Street Scene, Paris, like Edward Mitchell Bannister’s Landscape, focuses on ordinary subjects. Both are done in an Impressionistic style with visible strokes, an open composition, and an emphasis on light. The two pieces also have similar tranquil moods. Yet, while Street Scene, Paris appears calm, there is a suggestion of the city’s vibrancy in the radiant lights shining against the dark background. Like Bannister, Tanner did not focus on social or political subject matter, and both works demonstrate the importance of aesthetics within the work of some African American artists.
Tanner’s career, however, highlights the subtext of racial and social issues that underlie all works by artists of color who have had to deal with the racist art world. Even though Tanner was the most notable artist of his race to achieve international acclaim in the 19th century, had a successful career in France, was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1923, and in 1927 became the first African American granted full membership in the National Academy of Design, he faced many struggles in the United States because of his race. Throughout this exhibition, the work of Tanner and many others brings to light the hardships African Americans have experienced and tells a story of the strength needed in order for them to express themselves.
For further reading:
Boime, Albert. “Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Subversion of Genre.” The Art Bulletin 75.3 (1993): 415-442. Print.
Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Exh. Cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991. Print.
Patton, Sharon. African American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Perry, Regenia. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: Pomegranate, 1992. Print.
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