“It Is a Pleasant Story”: Ambiguities in the Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner

I am beginning to understand the conceit built into biography, particularly the biography of an artist. As though the life itself is a painting, we look for a frame to hold it—a tidy square. We look for the context of a single aim, tension, or motive to explain the artist’s work. But if the ideas of the artist really could be expressed this squarely, then the art would have been superfluous and the artist never would have come to our attention as someone worthy of a biography.

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898
I’ve come to this as I search for the life, purpose, and heart of the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). I search for these things, but I don’t think I’ll get to have them. He spoke little of himself that was recorded; he left scant autobiographical matter behind. He left only his paintings, one of which—the rich, midnight-hued impression of Jesus receiving Nicodemus—I found to be perfect for the cover of my latest book. In gratitude for this painting, in gratitude for his work, I wanted to be able to introduce Tanner to you. I wanted to be able to know him so I might let you know him also. But I do not know him. After reading and searching, I know only what I do not know.

What follows, then, is some of that—the spaces I find in which a definite knowledge of the man is missing. In the life of Henry Tanner, here are some of the ambiguities, the absences framed by opposing facts or unprovable speculation:

Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus,
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899
1. He was a remembrance of slavery; he wished to forget slavery

Tanner’s mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, was a former slave. His middle name honored an event in the fight against slavery, the raid by the abolitionist John Brown on Osawatomie, Kansas. Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who spoke against segregation. But Tanner the painter left this context behind. He went to Paris to live and work, beyond the reach of American slavery’s memory and legacy.

2. He was opposed in his art; he was encouraged in his art

The move to Paris was useful because of the obstacles to artistic acceptance Tanner would have faced at home. France’s climate was more racially tolerant than that of America. Yet his way wasn’t all obstacles; Tanner had tailwinds to his career that many an artist today would welcome. His parents recognized and encouraged his artistic promise. They enrolled him in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and honored his choice to pursue painting as his life’s work.

The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water,
Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1907
3. He was an African American artist; he refused this label

Tanner was widely known as an African American artist, and by the end of the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s, he was held in such high regard that younger African American artists would travel to Paris for an audience with him. However, in a letter to art critic Eunice Tietjens, he took exception to her congratulating him as a “negro” artist, rejecting racial categorization by citing the known or likely mixed ancestry of his parents. Tanner wrote, “Now am I a Negro? Does not the 3/4 of English blood in my veins, which when it flowed in ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon men and which has done in the past effective and distinguished work in the U.S.—does this not count for anything? Does the 1/4 or 1/8 of ‘pure’ Negro blood in my veins count for all?”

4. His motive in painting scenes from the Bible is unknown

Tanner devoted much of the full maturity of his artistic career to painting scenes from the Bible. The largest share of his finished works fits this category. Why? In his time, paintings portraying the Bible were in higher demand than paintings of contemporary scenes. With his upbringing, with the knowledge of the Bible he would have learned from his father, Tanner was well-equipped to answer this demand. Yet the indications seem to be that Tanner himself was a man of Christian humility, reverence, and faith. Did he experience his own work primarily as serving a market or primarily as his worshipful act of advancing the kingdom of God? He left no definite statement on this question. On one notable occasion he was asked whether he painted from the Bible in answer to his father’s hope that he would have been a minister. Tanner replied, “It is a pleasant story and I will not destroy it.”

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1907-1918
The artist is a truth-finder. The painter who presents a finished work is saying, essentially, “This representation aligns with the truth as I experience it.” The introduction of photography set the painter even more free to depart from visual accuracy toward greater fidelity to this felt truth, and Tanner lived and worked in the age when photography was first providing this freedom.

Meanwhile, biography—even autobiography—is inherent construction. Or reduction. It is a shorthanding, a search for the most inclusive story that makes the largest number of exterior details fit. In contrast, the artist searches the interior, finding the current of truth there and hoping to ride this current past the context of any exterior details so as to convey meaning into other contexts, other lives. Tanner left us his work because it’s what he wanted to leave us. And he left few autobiographical statements because, I suspect, he would have considered these statements to be extraneous or incomplete by comparison.

[PS. One more fact worth sharing, though it didn’t fit into the piece above: Henry Tanner might not have been the most accomplished member of his family. His sister, Halle Tanner Johnson, was the first female doctor in Alabama.]