Realism and Transcendence
  • Tuesday, July 17, 2012

By Dennis Raverty

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit
Cincinnati Art Museum through September 9
Houston Museum of Fine Arts, October-January

Gustave Courbet, radical leader of the 19th-century Realist movement in Paris, when asked to include angels in a commission, famously quipped: “Show me an angel and I will paint one.” This sums up the dilemma faced by any realistic painter attempting to represent the supernatural. Of course, the down-to-earth Realists were mostly concerned with portraying modern life and so only infrequently turned to religious subjects. However, on the rare occasions that they did, their attempts were generally unsuccessful.

Edouard Manet’s Dead Christ looks more or less like any other cadaver from the morgue, and Thomas Eakins’s Crucifixion, despite its meticulous attention to historical accuracy, looks like the execution of a common criminal, not the death of Christ. Despite the magnitude of their undisputed historical importance, neither Manet nor Eakins were able to rise above their materialistic realism enough to represent the transcendent dimension of these subjects.

This is one reason that most commissions for religious art in 19th-century France went to now long-forgotten conservative academic painters rather than to avant-garde Modernists, whether they were Realist, Impressionist or Post Impressionist. The academics used idealized forms based on Renaissance prototypes, but these derivative works, unlike the Renaissance art they emulated, were more often than not maudlin or sentimental kitsch that largely have been relegated to the dustbins of history.

In a refreshing respite from this general rule, expatriate American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, at the end of the 19th century, achieved in his Annunciation what Courbet intimated could not be realized. He was a realist who convincingly painted an angel. Taking an entirely new approach to this subject, Tanner shows Gabriel not in the anthropomorphic form of a man with wings, but rather represents the heavenly messenger as a sustained illuminating presence that brilliantly lights up the small room. One thinks immediately of the burning bush Moses saw.

What is not readily apparent in reproductions is the almost expressionist palpability of the paint used to indicate the angel. The paint is applied here with lavish abandon in layer upon layer of heavy transparent colored glazes alternating with thick impasto scumbling. It is almost as if a painting by postwar Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko were beginning to materialize at the foot of the bed.

At the same time that Tanner radically abstracts and dematerializes the angel, he takes great pains to give the apparition a realistic and believable setting. Observed from the artist’s travels in the Holy Land, the rug on the floor, the furnishings in the room, even the pattern of the textile in Mary’s garment are all carefully observed and accurate renditions of realistic details from the interior of a modest dwelling in late 19th-century Palestine.

The virgin, who appears to be a particular and unidealized Semitic girl around 15 or 16 (as historians tell us Mary would have been), is amazingly unafraid of this luminous presence in her room and listens carefully and thoughtfully to what he is saying. She is clearly free to accept or deny what the angel is proposing; her expression combines intelligence, fearless self-confidence and at the same time honest humility, yielding a grounded, ordinary, believable Mary, in stark contrast to her ethereal and otherworldly visitor.

Before his move to Paris, Tanner studied painting with controversial American artist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Later Tanner studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, the city where he eventually settled permanently, returning only sporadically to the United States. As an American of African descent (he was born a free man before Emancipation but his mother had at one time been a slave), Tanner served as a role model for more than one generation of African American artists visiting, living, or working in Paris. He is one of the few foreign artists considered by art historians to be part of the fin de siècle School of Paris.

While many of the great masters of the late 19th-century School of Paris turned from time to time to biblical subjects — Auguste Rodin, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Paul Gauguin and Les Nabis come immediately to mind — none of them dedicated the greater part of their work to biblical matters.

Tanner is best known for his iconic Banjo Lesson, where an old black man instructs a boy sitting on his lap, a mainstay in the popular imagination almost as emblematic as Grant Wood’s American Gothic or James McNeil Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black (“Whistler’s Mother”). Yet Tanner only did two of these genre paintings of African American life, devoting the majority of his work to biblical subjects and to paintings of Paris and the French countryside.

The influence of Whistler, another, older expatriate American artist, is evident in many of Tanner’s landscapes, especially Whistler’s subtle, evening nocturnes. These shades of dusk serve as a cover for other disembodied apparitions in Tanner’s work, as in the moonlit Christ Walking on the Water, where the same sort of luminous, disembodied, vertical form seems to emerge out of the twilight, virtually floating across the water to meet the astonished disciples. As in his earlier Annunciation, Tanner here represents the unrepresentable as an ethereal, radiant aura.

Another strong influence on Tanner was, of course, that earlier master of light, Rembrandt. This is most evident in one of the artist’s largest and most ambitious paintings, The Resurrection of Lazarus. Several people are crowded into a cave-like tomb illuminated by light that seems to come from somewhere within the pit of the sepulcher itself. Tanner, a master storyteller, has shown the first moments of consciousness as Lazarus is just awakening. His eyes are open and his left hand is feeling the shroud cloth that lines the sarcophagus; his other hand is still on his chest where it presumably had been placed during the burial. Christ’s hands have been enlarged by Tanner to emphasize his calm, gentle gesture toward Lazarus, palms up, beckoning him to arise. Christ does not so much compel Lazarus to arise as tenderly, patiently coax him to awaken from “sleep.”

The people crowded into the tomb express amazement at what is happening. Some close their eyes, others look with fear, a few gaze upward with gestures of thanksgiving. On the left, just behind a black man with a turban, one of the spectators looks directly at the viewer, engaging us as witnesses to the miracle.

Like Rembrandt, Tanner produced several versions of the story of the supper at Emmaus. In And He Vanished Out of Their Sight, the artist represents the moment after Christ’s disappearance, leaving only a fading shaft of light where Jesus had just moments before been sitting. Here, as ever, Tanner evinces a recognition of the great Realist challenge, namely, to communicate the transcendent amid the vernacular, making the marvelous visible and concrete.

How? In Tanner’s succinct explanation: “I invited the Christ spirit to manifest in me.”

Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries. His feature articles and criticism have appeared in Art in America, The International Review of African American Art, The New Art Examiner, and Art Papers, where he was a contributing editor.

Realism and Transcendence


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