- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

BALTIMORE — The modernist art stew was bubbling in 1892 when Henry Ossawa Tanner, son of African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, moved to Paris. Pablo Picasso was living there, as was Henri Matisse. So were Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, among other impressionists.

Other American expatriate artists had settled in the French capital, as well, but Tanner (1859-1937) departed from the rest by imbuing his work with a spirituality that captivated the Parisian art world and made him America’s most famous black artist by the turn of the century.

Visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris” will see how the painter, known as the “Preacher With a Brush,” used biblical texts as a basis for expressing his own mystical piety.

The exhibit — which runs through May 28 — includes 11 Tanner paintings and works on paper as well as 36 paintings, prints and drawings by other 19th-century French artists in this first of a two-part series. (The second Tanner exhibit, “Henry Ossawa Tanner and his Influence in America,” opens June 7.)

The artist clearly demonstrates his religious upbringing with a profound and almost total concentration on biblical and religious scenes. Focusing on four of Tanner’s paintings — “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water” (1907), “Christ Learning to Read” (circa 1911), “Le Touquet” (circa 1910) and the gouache “The Good Shepherd” (undated) — the current show provides a rare opportunity to compare the expatriate’s work with those of his French peers (Adolphe Appian, Alexandre Bida, Benjamin Constant and Camille Pissarro), as well as with earlier 19th-century mainstays such as Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Like most black Americans of his era, Tanner suffered from the prejudice experienced by others of his race. Born the son of Sarah Tanner, who had escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad, and the Rev. Benjamin Tucker Tanner, an important clergyman and intellectual figure among blacks, he was comparatively fortunate to be raised in Philadelphia’s black, middle-class community and study under the prominent academic artist Thomas Eakins at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (one of the few American art schools to admit blacks and women at the time).

There, Eakins taught Tanner the foundations of academic realism, oil-glazing techniques, photography and an appreciation of Rembrandt van Rijn’s emotionally powerful lights and darks.

Unsuccessful in careers as a photographer and teacher in Atlanta, Tanner settled in Paris in 1892, where he remained until his death in 1937, with only occasional trips back to America to see family and friends.

In Paris, he achieved almost immediate acclaim. The Musee du Luxembourg bought his large biblical “Resurrection of Lazarus” for its French national collection in 1897 (only five years after he arrived), and he regularly showed at the prestigious French salons.

Tanner remained a minister’s son with a deeply religious bent. Spirituality was a major theme in his early genre works such as his famous “Banjo Player” (not in the exhibit); early Eakins-like portraits like the one of his father, “Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner” (circa 1897), a recent Baltimore Museum acquisition; and the full-length “Christ Learning to Read” (circa 1911).

There are French Barbizon School influences in his purplish-blue “Le Touquet” (circa 1910), deeply mystical in its nighttime setting with only a moving, clouded moon for light, and a solitary figure barely visible in the dark. Tanner boldly swirled his brush strokes for an erupting night sky, borrowed an ethereal moon from his fellow Barbizon School painters and adopted their subject of a lonely peasant carrying wood.

Guest exhibit curator James Smalls wisely mounts Corot’s large “Shepherds of Arcadia” (circa 1872) nearby to show the younger painter’s dependence on previous masters. Tanner adopted Corot’s magical, silvery, arcadian countrysides here.

Visitors should also note the first unveiling of Tanner’s 1880s monochrome gouache “Good Shepherd,” probably a magazine illustration for a biblical story. Through exacting detective work by Baltimore resident Stacey Roberts, the work — with its massive Christ figure guarding His sheep — was recently found and identified.

Tanner’s iconic “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water” shows a boat traveling a diagonal, lower-right-to-upper left path, while the horizon forms a definite horizontal line near the painting’s upper edge. Christ is depicted as an abstracted column of light teetering on the sea; the water’s surface eerily reflects the ship’s mast and rigging.

Here light plays the crucial role, as it does in all of his religious works. The moon’s brilliant, aqueous reflections, showing fast currents and eddies in the water’s broken surfaces, dominates. It seems that Tanner “layered” the picture by first jabbing a heavily loaded brush onto the picture, smoothing it over with softer strokes, then repeating the process several times.

Scholars compare Tanner’s moonlight and Christ’s supernatural glow in “Disciples” to James McNeill Whistler’s “nocturnes” of some 25 years earlier. Although exhibit curator James Smalls, associate professor of art history and theory at the University of Baltimore, says there is no evidence of artistic or personal connections between the two, the similarities — superb use of light, abstraction coupled with realism, and the magic, mystical night scenes — are inescapable.

Yes, “Disciples” is definitely the work of a minister’s son, as is all of Tanner’s art — and the quality that enabled him to succeed in Paris’ during the turn-of-the-century art sweepstakes.

WHAT: “Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris”

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. the first Thursday of every month (except major holidays); through May 28. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, Christmas and New Year’s Day. (The museum closes at 4 p.m. on Dec. 24.)

TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 65 and older; $6 college for full-time students with I.D.; free for those ages 18 and younger, and the first Thursday of every month.

PHONE: 410/396-7100

ONLINE: www.artbma.org

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