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Tanner, Henry Ossawa - VM - Elaine Elliott

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Daniel in the Lion’s Den

Disagreeable Incidents

by Elaine D. Elliott

Daniel, enslaved by the Babylonians, was almost murdered by fellow administrators in King Darius’ court. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a post-Civil War African American artist, painted Daniel in the Lion’s Den three times. For him, there was a personal connection to slavery, oppression and near death: Tanner’s mother was a slave who escaped to the north on the Underground Railroad. 

Tanner’s parents supported his desire to be an artist. His father, an acclaimed church leader, scholar, magazine editor, author, advocate for citizenship and voting rights, and one who confronted the hypocrisy of white Christians, wrote, “By the presentation of visible objects to the eyes, divine truths may be most vividly photographed on the soul.” Tanner’s career choice was so uncommon as an African American at that time that he was a trailblazer and the path was difficult.

He wrote of the period during which he studied art in Philadelphia:

I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.  

Tanner moved to France where he not only gained recognition, but where also the sting and rejection of racism were lessened. A painting of Daniel in the Lion’s Den was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1896 and received an award. It was also exhibited that year at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and very much admired. However, only a black and white photograph remains. The painting above was done c. 1914-1917.

Up to 1896 Tanner had painted landscapes and genre paintings. This was his first biblical painting and his choice may have been guided by the spirituals and sermons in which Daniel was compared to enslaved people. For example, in his autobiography, Frederick Douglass compared his escape from slavery to Daniel, saying he felt like “one who had escaped from a den of hungry lions.” 

In an 1884 speech Douglass made an analogy to the difficult post-Civil War period by citing another biblical story: “…Lazarus is not dead. He only sleeps.” Tanner chose that same story for his next major painting. The Resurrection of Lazarus was accepted for the 1897 Paris Salon.  Critically acclaimed, the painting was purchased by the Luxembourg Museum, establishing Tanner’s international reputation.

When his painting of Lazarus was admired, Tanner responded, “I have made up my mind to serve Him [God] more faithfully.” Tanner continued to paint many scriptural scenes as an expression of his faith, writing, “I choose my religious subjects not primarily because I believe they will interest people, nor because I consider them most salable…I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell to my own generation and leave to the future.” Paintings of Christ, the Annunciation, the Visitation, Mary, the Holy Family, Wise Men, disciples, boats on the sea of Galilee, women of the Bible, Job, the Good Shepherd, the Crucifixion, disciples and women after the resurrection and many others carried out his intention.

In our times we continue to be confronted by murderous hatred based on race. We have seen far too many videos of innocents being murdered and the one of George Floyd in the USA was shockingly cold, casual, and callous. We know that the policemen who killed Floyd are just a more visible manifestation of murderous and unloving hearts in our societies. Yet we are seeing hopeful signs of change thanks to massive public protests in reaction to many injustices. All the legacies of slavery and cruelty of racism, including the slights Tanner and many others have experienced, are being challenged.  

Tanner continues to “preach with his brush” for us today.

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, c. 1914-1917, Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 104.46 × 126.84 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896, oil on canvas, 94,7 x 120,5 cm. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The oldest of nine children, Tanner was the son Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal  Church and Sarah Tanner, a school teacher, who was born into slavery in the state of Virginia, but escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. Both his parents were highly educated. When he was just a few years old, Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he would spend most of his childhood. Despite his father's initial objections, Tanner fell in love with the arts. He was 13 when he decided he wanted to become a painter, and throughout his teens he painted and drew as much as he could. In 1880 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There he studied under Thomas Eakins, arguably one of the most important artists in American art history, who had a profound impact on Tanner's life and work. In 1891 Tanner's life took a dramatic turn with a visit to Europe. In Paris, France, in particular Tanner discovered a culture that seemed to be light years ahead of America in race relations. Free from the prejudicial confines that defined his life in his native country, Tanner made Paris his home, living out the rest of his life there. (Source: www.biography.com/people/henry-ossawa-tanner-9501966#synopsis)

Elaine Elliott was raised in Mexico, the child of Wycliffe Bible Translators. She and her husband have worked in Guatemala since 1975 alongside the Ixil Maya people who were violently repressed during the Guatemalan Civil conflict of the 1980s. After working at the University of San Diego, they are again working on Ixil educational projects, living in Antigua, Guatemala. She currently includes works of art with daily devotionals sent out on email. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation 23 August, 2020