September 2009 | Within nine years of moving abroad, Henry Ossawa Tanner, America's first major African American artist, had become an international success. By 1900 he ranked among the leading American artists in Paris and was widely considered the premier biblical painter of his day. Exhibiting regularly at the Paris Salon, he was attracting even greater critical acclaim than Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), his former mentor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His studio at 51 boulevard Saint-Jacques had become a destination for Americans on cultural pilgrimages. It was in France and in biblical motifs that Tanner found a means to transcend considerations of race.
Writing for the Cosmopolitan in 1900, Vance Thompson (1863-1925) observed that "There is no American artist in Paris more talked about than Mr. H. O. Tanner. . . . Mr. Tanner is not only a biblical painter—not only a Philadelphian—but, as well, he has brought to modern art a new spirit." 1
The artist's "new spirit" owed much to the shaping power of the particular branch of American Protestantism in which he was raised. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in protest against slavery, influenced his embrace of biblical imagery. Tanner understood his own struggles as an African American painter in biblical terms. That intuition gestated throughout his early career until it was summoned to life at the Académie Julian under the tutelage of Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902), the fashionable orientalist and painter of scriptural motifs. Added to that influence was the subtle capillary action of French piety—with its intense Marian cast—on a religiously sensitive temperament. The result was fertile ground for biblical narratives that are wonderfully distinguished from those by more typical salonniers.
Tanner summarized his purposes in 1924: "My effort has not only been to put the Biblical incident in the original setting ... but at the same time to give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin' and which ever remains the same." 2 Biblical subject matter permitted him to achieve something more universal than the school of Negro art that critics such as African American scholar Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954) wanted from him.
While race was indelibly present in Tanner's figurative work centered on black models, the sitter's humanity was his enduring subject. Tanner's Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Fig. 3) testifies to his ability—crucial in any serious artist—to adapt the technical and compositional moves of predecessors to his own purposes. The woman's gesture—one hand against her cheek, the other dropped in her lap—echoes Eakins's Miss Amelia Van Buren of about 1891 (Phillips Collection, Washington). While the composition is designed after James McNeill Whistler's (1834-1903) celebrated Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother of 1871 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), Tanner's variation, informed by Eakins, more fully summons a human presence.