Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lions Come to Life in Replica of Cave from 32,000 Years Ago

This month a replica of Chauvet Cave -- which holds the oldest known paintings of Paleolithic art --will open to the public in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardèche region of southeastern France.

As the April issue Smithsonian Magazine details, the early dating of 32,000 - 30,000 years ago has been analyzed and verified by various means. Stone age humans used this particular cave, and so did hibernating bears! Carbon dating confirms the early date of the charcoal pigments, but the bear bones found inside the cave have also been shown to be from around the same time.  A rock slide that occurred 29,000 years ago covered up the entrance -- keeping out the people and bears until just 20 years ago.   Chauvet Cave was discovered in December 1994.


Although the style of art and cultural heritage has continuity with the numerous cave paintings of southwestern France and northeastern Spain, such as Lascaux, there are also species not seen elsewhere, including lions and bears.  The cave artists had an amazing ability of the artists to evoke the spirit of the animals and suggest their power. Their forms follow the convex surfaces of the cave walls, often making their forms come out into space if they were carvings in relief.  Other animals are bison, aurochs, hyenas and horses.



As in most caves, no humans are shown. There's actually a bear head on an altar.  It's reasonable to thing that the animals were considered as having more power than humans.  There's actually a bear head placed as if on an altar. As in most other caves, there are handprints, probably both male and female, mainly done with a stencil technique.

The superimposed horses have remarkably realistic features.  As all other cave paintings, they're superimposed without respect to creating a composition.  Instead, there seems to be an attempt to evoke the spirit of the animals and bring their power, vitality and energy in some type of shamanistic ritual.  Of course, determining exact meaning and reasons for these works will always be a mystery.   There is, though, a fascinating image that links the paintings to Paleolithic statuettes.

The Chauvet artists used pigments of charcoal and red ocher. The two things that come to mind as being different from later Paleolithic paintings are fewer colors and the profile views of horns.  (The bulls of Lascaux have horns are painted in twisted perspective, a frontal view on profile body.)

Only a few years before the discovery of Chauvet, scuba divers near Marseilles discovered a cave under the Mediterranean, by following a channel leading to an underground lake.  Named Cosquer Cave for an diver who found it, no public access possible.  Unwittingly, three divers died while searching for this monument.  Cosquer Cave probably dates to about 5,000 - 7,000 years later than Chauvet, but 5,000 plus years earlier than the earliest paintings at Lascaux.   Horses, reindeer and other images at Cosquer are similar to later paintings, but what are we to think of the penguin, or auk (see below)?
Auk or penguin?  Cosquer Cave near Marseille, France


Few people have been allowed to enter the Chauvet Cave since Eliette Brunel, Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire discovered it back in December, 1994.  The desire was prevent the carbon monoxide damage caused by visitors between 1940 and 1963, when it closed to the public.  A replica of Lascaux welcomes visitors, who can admire the magnificent rotunda with its Hall of Bulls.  However, the replica and visitors center at Vallon Pont d'Arc is far bigger than Lascaux.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea" Brings Top Quality to Washington

Andrea Pisano, relief from Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence, 14th century
One of the things I appreciate most about living in Washington is the quality of its art exhibitions. A National Museum for Women in Arts (NMWA) exhibit,“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” brings some of the best images from Italy in Washington.  This magnificent show dedicated to the mother of Jesus has a Botticelli, two Della Robbias, a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio.  It’s almost better to see it in Washington, DC, than in Italy, because so many of the most beautiful images are brought together in one place.  However, the exhibition is only going to be there one more week, until April 12.

The exhibition also has a significant number of early Italian sculptures, a stained glass window and even an image made in India.  Paintings and sculptures come from several museums in Florence, Rome, Milan and Paris. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has loaned several pieces to the exhibition, which stand up in quality with some of the best in Italy.  Furthermore, NMWA added paintings from its own collection.
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480

The exhibition begins with the late Gothic period/early Renaissance. Above all, it captures one aspect of Mary that is most appreciated, her motherhood.  In  Andrea Pisano’s beautiful blue and white relief sculpture from the 14th century bell tower of Florence Cathedral (above), Mary is tickling the baby Jesus.  Italian artists at this time broke from the medieval and Byzantine artists by bringing Mary down to earth.  She is just like any other mother and Jesus is just your typical baby, no longer a miniature adult with an imperial demeanor.  They  have fun and are very playful.  He's a true Italian bambino.

If anything to notice about this exhibition, it's about love. There's so much love.  Some images are incredibly sweet, such as a Madonna by the Master of the Winking Eyes (see bottom).  In this painting and others, Mary wears coral jewelry, a symbol of protection.  In an iconic Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, Mary shows the Baby Jesus a book as he looks up at her.  He holds three nails, foreshadowing His death, while her eyes hints of the sadness in knowing of His death.  Yet the sweetness and love in Botticelli's imagery is heavenly.  Botticelli’s Mary is both loving earthly Mother and an ideal of beauty that only belongs in the perfect world of heaven.  

A spectacular painting in the show is by Botticelli’s teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi.  In his image, Jesus pulls his mother’s veil and snuggles very closely.  Jesus stands on a ledge and Mary holds him in a niche behind.  Lippi’s Madonna and Child does what Renaissance art strove so much to do — bridge that gap between the earthly and heavenly.  He also creates an illusion of three-dimensional depth into space which reaches into our space so convincingly. 

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (detail)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a priest by accident.  Orphaned as a child, he grew up in monastery and became a priest.  It wasn’t really his calling. He fell in love with a nun, Lucretia Butti and had a son who grew up to be the marvelous painter Filippino Lippo.  The papacy gave Lippi a special dispensation to leave the priesthood and get married.  Lucretia and Filippino were probably the models for his Madonna and Child.

The Michelangelo in the exhibition is a well-known drawing from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Its beauty is amazing even tough it's an unfinished masterpiece.  Mary is nursing the Baby Jesus.  Michelangelo drew the baby Jesus with a great degree of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), to make him farm more three-dimensional than the image of Mary.  I'm reminded that as an infant, Michelangelo was sent to live with a stone cutter whose wife became his wet nurse.  His own mother didn't have enough milk to feed him.  It is thought that living with the stone cutter for the first few years of life primed Michelangelo to become a sculptor.   His baby Jesus is very sculptural.
Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, c. 1520-25
 


There’s an Artemisia Gentilleschi painting I had never seen previously.  She’s holding out her breast for Jesus, offering to nurse him.  She looks  down at Jesus very lovingly, as He stops to think about it rather than jumping right to her breast.  Artemisia Gentilleschi is the first female artist to have achieved an international reputation.  Her own biography. is very compelling. 
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, St. Luke Painting the Virgin


One of the artists I had never heard of is Orsola Maddelena Caccia, a prolific painter who also was a nun in the 17th century.  There are six large paintings of hers in the exhibition, each with an elaborate iconography.   Her St. Luke Painting the Virgin reminds us that many of the stories surrounding Mary are purely imaginative.  Much of what is painted about Mary's life is the result of popular legends.   

This exhibition is significant and scholarly for a number of reasons.  It delves into the meaning behind the imagery.  It also reveals significant stories in Mary's life and the lives of the artists who painted her.  The NMWA blog has much good information about the symbolism.  It also can teach viewers a great deal about the Renaissance and Baroque styles of art, particularly in Italy.  

However, I appreciate the exhibition mostly for other reasons. When we look at these Madonnas and we see the maternal love, we know that Mary's message is that she can be mother to all of us.  One doesn't need to be Christian or even religious to understand that the love between a mother and her child is a universal truth.  

The NMWA used images from its own collection to enhance the show,  pieces by Elisabetta Sirani and Sofonisba Anguissola.  The museum continues to make a significant contributions to the community, to promote women artists from around the world and to cultivate relationships with significant donors. Generous donors and supporters of NMWA underwrote the cost of insuring individual works of as they traveled from Europe.  The result of their gifts is that Washington has put on another exhibition of universal importance and appeal.

At the National Gallery, there's another exhibition about the Italian Renaissance in Washington, Piero di Cosimo.  It taps into a completely different aspect of the Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in classical mythology.    
Master of the Winking Eye, Madonna and Child, c. 1450

Sunday, February 15, 2015

In the Silence and Minutia of the Birds

Fred Tomaselli, Woodpecker, 2009, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
gouache, acrylic, photo collage and epoxy resin on wood, 72" x 72" 
I love talking about birds in my Art Appreciation classes, though with a focus very different from from the current SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum) exhibition, "The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art."  The exhibition's message is about man's relationship to birds, with the accent on environmental issues.  My class talks about birds in flight, to symbolize our human aspirations.  Flying birds remind us that humans can soar even if we don't literally know how to fly.

Chris Allen, A Grand View,  2010, Stone, beads, fetish
Photo from Pinterest, Bonin Smith
This exhibition and another excellent exhibition called "Bead," at GRACE (Greater Reston Arts Center), honor the minutia of creation in thousands or millions of the small details that make up the birds.  Both exhibitions are breathtakingly beautiful, must-see experiences, though their purposes are not at all similar.  There's only one week left to see the SAAM show, and almost two left weeks until "Bead" ends on February 28.  Two of the 15 artists in "Bead" included birds, but the show also features well-known national artists such as David Chatt and Joyce J. Scott. There are many other masterful and surprising interpretations of beads.  A pair of birds sitting on top of Chris Allen's beaded stones is called A Grand View.  Beads are skin for the timeless stones of the earth and Allen's construction is a metaphor for relationship of body and soul. (Chris Allen reminds me of both a blog I wrote before and the great sculptor I admire, Brancusi.)

Back at SAAM, Fred Tomaselli's Woodpecker, is a large painting, but its smallest details are mesmerizing.  Three of his other large paintings are also in the exhibition, all densely patterned.  Tomaselli, originally from Santa Monica, California, recalls growing up with bright colors of Disneyland, but also is quite a naturalist, a bird watcher and a lover of fly fishing.  Today an exhibition of his work opens at the Orange County Museum of Art. 

Ingrid Bernhardt, Chic Chick, 2014, 5" x 6" 4" papier-mâché, beads and feathers
As in Woodpecker with its beautiful details, there's a dedication to perfection in Ingrid Bernhardt's Chic Chick at GRACE. It's a papier-mâché bird with added beads and feathers.  Tons and tons of the tiniest beads make it very intricate.  From the fallen feathers, the artist has made some beautiful earrings which lie beside the bird.  It's quite a novelty and something special to behold.  Bernhardt compares her beading technique to the pointillism of Seurat and all the dots of color he used.
Laurel Roth Hope, Regalia 63 x 40 x 22 in.
Private Collection
© Laurel Roth Hope. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris
Chic Chick's sheer beauty and attention to detail has lots of competition in the peacocks of California artist, Laurel Roth Hope, currently on view at SAAM.  She makes peacocks out of hair clips, fake fingernails, fake eyelashes, jewelry, Swarovski crystal and other beauty symbols.  One named Regalia, has all the pride associated with its species, and another sculpture named Beauty, is a composition of two peacocks who play the mating game.  This bird traditionally is a symbol of Resurrection and eternal life in Christian art, and the artist evokes a power worthy of that traditional role. Her peacocks are amazingly realistic, but the technique and innovative use of material is an example of how an artist can show us how to see the world in a new way. 

Laurel Roth Hope, Carolina Parokeet, crocheted yarn on
hand-carved wood pigeon mannequin,  Smithsonian
American Art Museum
Laurel Roth Hope is also concerned about the environment and biodiversity  To celebrate certain species that are now extinct, she crocheted sweaters that mimic the coats and plumage of these lost birds.  One, Carolina Parokeet, is in the SAAM's permanent collection. Others in this group include the Passenger Pigeon, The Paradise Parrot and the Dodo. She used her hands to crochet sweaters in beautiful, tiny variegated colors and pattern. Much love goes into her creations. At the same time, we think of so many cultural concepts: beauty, pride, artifice (fake nails and fake eyelashes, loss, death.  We ask ourselves: What does the outer coat (outer beauty)mean? What does pride mean if it bites the dust in the end?  At the same time, the artist is giving tribute and memory to something that is lost.
Laurel Hope Roth, Beauty, detail from the Peacock series photo from the website
John James Audubon was America's master artist of birds. Walton Ford is similarly a naturalist who works with combination techniques--watercolor, gouache, etching, drypoint, etc.  He breaks with Audubon with his complex allegorical messages, however. environmental messages, however. Also among the 12 artists in the Smithsonian show, several are bird photographers.
Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
watercolor, gouache, and pencil and ink on paper
40 x 60 in.
The Cartin Collection
Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery
Only one of the artists, Tom Uttech, painted his birds in the way I usually imagine them -- in flight.   Uttech lives in Wisconsin, and his landscapes come from the North Woods, as well as a provincial park in Ontario. Some of his titles are impossible. Enassamishhinijweian is my favorite.  A bear's back faces us, as he sits still and calmly observes the world of nature passing by.  Multitudes of birds fly. An owl turns to look at us, and even a squirrel flies in the sky.  The museum label mentions Uttech's immersion in nature and his belief in its transformative power, much like Emerson and Thoreau.  I'd guess that Uttech is also an admirer of Heironymous Bosch, a 15th-16th century Dutch painter.  He also loved panoramas. A bear hidden in each of Uttech's three large panoramic landscapes.  These bears are probably the artist himself, or the individual who observes nature.
Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian, 2009, oil on linen, 103" x112"  Collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas

© Tom Uttech. Image courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York. Photo by Steven Watson
Traditionally in art, birds in flight show contact between man and divinity.  A bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit.  In African and Oceanic cultures, the birds tie a living person to his ancestors.  Only one of the artists I noticed at SAAM, Petah Coyne, sees her birds as the travel guides, the conduit between heaven and earth.  Her elaborate black and purple sculpture is called Beatrice, after Dante's beautiful guide through Purgatory, in The Divine Comedy.  It's about 12 feet high, and is dripping with birds and falling flowers.  The beautiful work must be seen in person to be appreciated.

The many manifestations of birds reminds us of all the roles they fulfill: the silent and the singing and the flying.   We end up with a new, profound appreciation for nature, and the hope to protect its beauty, birds included.  These exhibitions helped me to see the vastness of this world, as well as the minutia of its details.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The Little Dancer" Brings Art to Life

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878–1881,pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden baseoverall without base: 98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm (38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in.) weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg)  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

It was a joy to see the Kennedy Center's world-premiere production, The Little Dancer, which closed on November 30th.  Tiler Peck, principle of the New York City Ballet had the lead as 14-year-old Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for Degas' famous statue, Little Dancer.  Although Peck is definitely far more mature than Degas' model was, she certainly was a good choice for the role.  Boyd Gaines, as Degas, really does not look like him but I guess it doesn't matter.   Some of the settings and compositions are the same as you will see in his paintings.  (My blog about Degas's paintings of dancers)

The music is delightful, and most of the story is fairly credible, so I do hope the musical will go to more venues. The Kennedy Center audiences loved it.   The musical fits in with what I've been writing about, Degas and Cassatt and the relationships between artists.  The story opens in 1917 with a visit to Degas' household after his death.  Mary Cassatt is there, wishing to turn the ballerina away, but she came back to see the sculpture he did of her many years earlier.   It's fairly funny as it refers to the yellow coat with a fur collar that was annoying to Marie.
Tiler Peck in front of the National Gallery of Art's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen , from Tiler Talks Blog, October 15, 2014 

The story is truthful in that portrayed some of the challenges in the lives of the dancers who were working class girls.  Marie's mother was a laundress, and I'm guessing she posed for Degas, too. Laundresses -- like dancers and race horses -- were part of Degas' continuous subject matter, as he studied the movements of muscles and limbs at work and in stress. (While we think of dancers and race horses expressing consummate grace, we don't think of laundresses that way.)  In the play, Marie was put into a competition with snooty, upper class girl who had a stage mother, a story for a Disney movie or a story which would be more truthful today.  Wealthy girls were not so likely to be ballerinas in the 19th century, as their parents wouldn't have subjected them to gawking men.  Class differences, as a major theme of the play, are historically correct for the time.  Other details of biography, Degas' grumpy outer shell that hid his softness, his sensitivity to strong light and fear of going blind were woven into the tale.  Of course, the close companionship and artistic relationship with Mary Cassatt, especially during the time Marie would have posed, were very true.

Tiler Peck as Marie, the Little Dancer, in the Kennedy Center Musical of that name
The musical, too, has flashbacks to old the older and younger Marie.  Rebecca Luker, an experienced Broadway star who plays the older Marie, has a powerful voice.  The musical is similar to a recent genre of books which use a work of art to create a historical fiction.  Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier's book about Jan Vermeer and his famous subject, much of the details are imagined.

For the importance of the statue artistically, the National Gallery of Art will have Little Dancer Aged Fourteen on display in an exhibition with other sketches, paintings and sculpture until January 11, 2015.  I think the importance of Degas' wax sculptures as comparable the importance of his sketches.  Waxes to bronzes are like drawings are to paintings, although not necessarily the case here.  It helped him realize his vision for his paintings.
Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, c. 1885/1890 pigmented beeswax, metal armature, cork, on wooden base
overall without base: 60.3 x 37.8 x 34.1 cm (23 3/4 x 14 7/8 x 13 7/16 in.)
height (of figure): 56.8 cm (22 3/8 in.)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


Degas built the statue in wax over an armature, and he did it in an additive process. In the play, it is called a "characterizing portrait." and As such, it was quite innovative. Details are not the important part as much as the essence the characterization.  The play opens with a famous by Degas: "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."  What Degas did so brilliantly make us see the essence of the practice, the work, the attitude and the dedication which made the ballet become what it became.  Most of his paintings are of rehearsals rather than performances.  Seeing his work makes our lives richer, and seeing "Little Dancer" enriches us.  Even the 6-year old boys near me were entranced by it.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cassatt and Degas: An Impressionist Duo in Portraits

Mary Cassatt, La Loge, 1878-79
Mary Cassatt was several years younger than Edgar Degas, but when he saw her work he exclaimed, "Here's someone who sees as I do."   Currently, the National Gallery is showing Cassatt side by side with Degas, comparing how they two worked together and shared.  Both are remarkable portrait artists.

Like Manet and Morisot, their relationship was especially helpful for each of them reach the fullness of artistic vision.  They spent about ten years working closing together.  As their artistic visions changed, they grew in different directions.  They share same daring sense of composition. Both are excellent portrait artists.  I just finished reading Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers.  It's the story of Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt: their biographies, their art and their interdependence.

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt
Degas and Manet were good friends, too, and had a friendly competition. They had much in common, having been born in Paris and coming from well-to-do backgrounds.  Both had a strong affinity for Realism, but Degas was the greater draftsman, and probably the greatest draftsman of the late 19th century.  (Read my blog explaining Degas's dancers)  Cassatt and Morisot also were friends, as the two women who were fixtures of the Impressionist group. They were very close to their families, and their subjects were similar. Their personalities were quite different. Berthe Morisot was refined and full of self doubt, while Mary Cassatt was bold and confident. Cassatt did not have Morisot's elegance or her beauty.

Her confidence shines in all of Degas' portraits.  She was not too pleased with the portrait at right, but Degas often did get into the character of his subjects. Degas painted her leaning forward and bending over, and holding some cards. He put her in a pose used in at least two other paintings, but I'm not certain what he meant by this position.  The orange and brown earth tones, and the oblique, sloping asymmetric composition are very common in Degas' paintings.

Degas may have been somewhat shy, but caustic, biting and moody.  By all accounts, it appears that Cassatt made him a happier person. Degas was the one who invited her to join the Impressionist group in 1877, three years after it had formed.. They worked together to gain skills in printmaking.  In addition, to their common artistic goals and objectives, both had fathers who were prominent bankers.  Mary Cassatt was an American from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Degas had relatives from his mother's family who lived in New Orleans.  Some of his father's family had moved to Naples, Italy, and had married into the aristocracy there.

No on seems to know if they were lovers. Both artists were very independent, remained single their entire lives.  Neither was the type who really wanted to be married.  However, each of them had proposed to others when they were very young, and before they knew each other.  Writers don't spend a lot of time speculating about their love lives, still an unknown question.  Most art historians believe Degas sublimated his sexual energies fairly well while exploring the young girls and teens who were ballet dancers.
Degas, Henri De Gas and His Niece Lucie, 1876

I have always loved this painting of Henri De Gas and his niece Lucie, from the Art Institute of Chicago.  It seems a very sympathetic portrait of his uncle and cousin, both of whom have kindly faces. Sometimes it's been explained that the chair as a vertical line showing the separateness of the relationship.  I see it differently.  The composition has a large diagonal, and an arc brings are eye from the upper right side to the lower left corner.  A continuous compositional line from their heads down to the edge of his hand and the newspaper pulls the older man and young girl together. There heads are nearly at the same angle, single expressing their togetherness.  The uncle looks like such a kindly man, and both look at us the viewers.
Marry Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassstt

Mary Cassatt also shows an even stronger family bond in the Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt, her brother and nephew.   Her brother ultimately rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and may have been somewhat of a robber baron. You would never see his harshness in his sister's portrayal.  He seems like the ultimate warm, affectionate father.  The two faces are placed so closely together, and they're similar.  Degas and Cassatt often portrayed individuals in relation to each other to show their great affection for each other, so differently from the way Manet did.  In most of his group portraits Manet makes us keenly aware that each individual is a unique soul.  He emphasizes differences and oppositions,
One the best of Mary Cassatt's portraits is the Young Girl in a blue armchair.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Calling of Henry O Tanner: A Religious Painter for America

Henry Ossawa Tanner,   The Raising of Lazarus, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, 1896
Henry Ossawa Tanner, the most important African-American painter born in the 19th century, should probably be considered America's greatest religious painter, too.  He came into the world in when our country was on the brink of its Civil War, in Pittsburgh, 1859.  Though his paintings are profound, he normally doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves.

Religious painting has never been a significant genre in the United States. Mainly, it has been used for book illustration and in churches with stained glass windows. Of course, Europe had its own rich tradition of paintings for Catholic Churches and even in the Protestant Netherlands, Rembrandt made paintings and prints of biblical subjects for their religious significance.

Tanner reinvented religious painting with highly original interpretations.  His father was a minister in the AME Church who ultimately became the bishop of Philadelphia in 1888. His mother was born in slavery, but escaped on the underground railway. Although Tanner was born free, he obviously experienced turbulent times and discrimination; faith could have given him solace.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1894, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

In 1894, Tanner painted Mary, mother of Jesus, at the Annunciation, the biblical story of an angel announcing to Mary she is to be the mother of God.  Typical Annunciation scenes put a flying angel interrupting a teenage girl in her bedroom.  Tanner leaves out the angel and only a beam of light represents the divine encounter.   Pictured as a young women in her bedroom, Mary reflects inward on the meaning of the light, knowing God has things in mind for her.  The painting is absolutely beautiful, a show-stopper with a profound imagining of how Christ's earthly life began. The streak of light appears as the leg of the cross as it passes through a horizontal shelf on the wall.  When we notice this detail, we're given a hint of how Jesus' life ended, death by crucifixion.

detail-The Raising of Lazarus
Tanner's technique uses mainly the pictorial language of realism to convey divine presence on Earth, in contrast to Abbot Handerson Thayer who used symbolic angels and winged figures in an idealized classical figural style.  Another way to explain the difference is to say that Tanner painted in a vernacular language, instead of using the classical Latin language.  His religious stories are without supernatural excess, but he uses light strategically to illuminate miracles.

Although born in Pittsburgh, most of his early life was in Philadelphia.  He became the pupil of legendary teacher Thomas Eakins in 1879.  Although Eakins considered him a star pupil, he faced racial prejudice from other students.  Not receiving recognition in the United States, he set out for Europe in 1891, and received additional training at the Academe Julian in Paris.  Philadelphia may have been the best place for an American to study art in the 19th century, but Paris was the best place for an artist to be.  By 1895, his work was accepted in the Paris Salon.  The next year he received an honorable mention at the Salon, and in 1897, his recognition was complete with The Raising of Lazarus, 1896.  The success which alluded him the US came after only a few years living in France. 

The Raising of Lazarus (top of this blog page, and to the right.) received a third class medal in the Paris Salon, but it also became the first painting to be bought by the nation of France and placed in a national museum. The painting tells the story of Jesus going into the grave of Lazarus to bring him back to life, with sisters Mary and Martha and a group of his stunned followers.  Tanner captures in paint the earthly event as it actually could have taken place, but uses heightened light-dark contrast to illuminate the miracle.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Two Disciples at the Tomb, 1906
Art Institute of Chicago,  51 x 41-7/8"

We can think of Tanner as similar to Caravaggio who introduced dramatic light - dark contrast to show that the calling to follow the Lord is a mysterious event.  More importantly, we can think of Tanner like Rembrandt, who used light to convey subtle and mysterious psychological states that accompany a person undergoing a spiritual awakening, or witnessing a miracle.  As in the works of both the earlier artists, the drama becomes an interior event.


In 1906, Tanner's painting of Two Disciples at the Tomb won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's 19th exhibition of American painting..  In it, Peter, the older man points to himself as if saying "Oh my God," while the younger apostle John raises is head straining to with expectancy to see fulfillment of Jesus' promise with the Resurrection.   Light is strategically placed on the whitened necks against dark clothing, and the glow of their bony faces radiate a sudden awareness of the miraculous event of Christ's Resurrection.  They're the faces of simple men, whose faith has saved them.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Three Marys, 1910  Fisk University, Nashville, TN  42" x. 50"
The Three Marys is a particularly beautiful portrait of women as they see the light in front of Jesus' tomb and that he has risen from the dead.  The witnessing of a miracle is a profound spiritual event. Each woman has a slightly different psychological response. Like many of Rembrandt's paintings, The Three Marys is nearly monochromatic, with blue as the primary color. He explained the intent of his paintings, "My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting, but at the same time give it the human touch....to try to convey to the public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me."  It seemed that as time went on, the blues get stronger and stronger in his paintings.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Hampton University, Hampton, VA


Actually Tanner's best know paintings are The Banjo Lesson, 1893, at Hampden University and The Thankful Poor, 1894, in a private collection.  He painted them on return to the United States and based them on memories from travel in North Carolina.  Instead biblical stories, these paintings are scenes of everyday life.  Yet they have a religious significance in their contemplative spirit and the suggestion of humility.  The Banjo Lesson has two sources of light, an unseen window and an unseen fireplace or stove to the right.  The glow of light shows that he was familiar with Impressionism and applied some of its diffusive, scattered light it.

Tanner traveled extensive to the Middle East and into the Islamic world.  Trips to Egypt and Palestine in 1897 and 1898 may have given him inspiration for the settings in his paintings.  After 1900, he developed a looser style, with more tonalism and the possibility of becoming more poetic.



Henry Ossawa Tanner, Abraham's Oak, 1905, Smithsonian American Art Museum
As we may expect, the city of Philadelphia has a substantial collection of his work, particularly where he studied, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a large collection of his works also.  I particularly like Abraham's Oak, which can be read as a pure landscape painting.  Also fairly monochromatic, the painting reflects the Tonalist style prevalent in the United States at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.  Tonalist landscapes are moody, evocative, contemplative and spiritual.  He combines the underlying beauty in nature with a symbolic oak, the place Abraham staked out for his people as the Jewish patriarch.

Like the great early 19th century artist Eugene Delacroix, Tanner was fascinated by North African subjects and themes.  (I see Delacroix's influence in the vivid colors and the way he treated the floor patterns in The Annunciation.)  He went to Algeria in 1908 and Morocco in 1912.  The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are said have been inspiration a late painting, The Good Shepherd, also in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Figures became smaller, but faith is still his driving force.  The unification of subject with landscape has increased.  There's a huge precipice these sheep could fall down, but their loving shepherd protects them.  According to Jesse Tanner, his son, the artist believed that “God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us.”  He lived to be 79, dying in 1937.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, c. 1930 Smithsonian American Art Museum
(I have seen only one exhibition of his paintings at the Terra Museum of American Art, back around 1996 and the work mesmerized me.)  An exhibition in Philadelphia two years ago attempted to bring Tanner the recognition due to him.  Here's a professor's review of the exhibit which also traveled to Cincinnati and to Houston.

There may be reasons apart from racism as to why he is not more famous in America. The United States lacks a tradition of religious painting and doesn't easily embrace it.  Furthermore, art historians celebrate artists who are innovators, those who bring art forward.   Although Tanner was painting at the time of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee and O'Keeffe, he was not strongly affected by their trends of change.  He stayed true to himself and in that way, he is a prophet of his faith rather than a prophet of the avant-garde.