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Editorial note: This post was written in part in response to the current Presidential administration’s recent remarks this Black History Month, and its seeming lack of knowledge regarding black history in this country. It is also written to share in brief the life and work of an artist whose work I have always admired.

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Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859-1937

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859 and grew up in Philadelphia. Tanner’s father, who happened to be a friend of Frederick Douglass, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Tanner’s mother, who had escaped slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad, taught private school in the home. Both staunch believers in education, they made sure their son, the eldest in a large family, was well-educated and prepared for a successful career in a conventional job.

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The Tanner Family

Tanner had a slightly alternative idea. He too wanted to be successful and he wanted to be a painter. He’d known since the age of 13 after watching an artist at work in a Philadelphia park.  Eventually, his father relented and he was allowed to pursue his artistic calling. In 1879 he was admitted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the first African American student to attend full-time.

Biographers refer to the fact that Tanner would write little about his time at the academy, mostly focusing on what he learned from Thomas Eakins with whom he studied. Regardless, it was an important period in Tanner’s life, not only for what he learned about art but also about human nature.

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Already in attendance at the academy prior to Tanner’s arrival was student Joseph Pennell who would one day be recognized as a great American illustrator. In his 1925 memoir Pennell makes note of Tanner’s arrival at the school in a chapter titled, The Coming of the Nigger.

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Ship in a Storm, 1879

“There was no dissenting voice in the academy against Tanner’s presence. He came, he was young, an octoroon, very well dressed, far better than most of us. His wool, if he had any, was cropped so short you could not see it, and he had a nice mustache. … he drew very well. He was quiet and modest, and he “painted too” it seemed “among his other accomplishments.” We were interested at first but he soon passed almost unnoticed … Little by little however we were conscious of a change. I can hardly explain, but he seemed to want things; we seemed in the way, and the feeling grew.”

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Seascape – Jetty, 1876-1879

One night while out on the town with Pennell and other students, Tanner was mocked by other African Americans for being with the white students. Pennell recalls, “Then he began to assert himself and, to cut a long story short, one night his easel was carried out into the middle of Broad Street, and though not painfully crucified, he was firmly tied to it and left there. And that is my only experience of my colored brothers in a white school. Curiously there has never been a great Negro or great Jew artist in the history of the world. …” 

Tanner studied at the academy through 1885. By 1889 he moved to Atlanta. He was unsuccessful in a photography business venture. During this period he made the acquaintance of Bishop Joseph Hartzell of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Hartzel and his wife became patrons, helping Tanner secure a teaching position at Clark College, encouraging him to exhibit his work and eventually funding a trip for him to Europe. In Europe, Tanner discovered an environment where he was not a “negro painter,” he was simply an American painter. In 1891, he emigrated to Paris where he would study at the Academie Julian.

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The Banjo Lesson. 1893

After contracting typhoid fever, he returned briefly to the U.S. to recuperate. During this period he delivered a speech at The Chicago Congress on Africa at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition about negro artists and sculptors. In 1893 he would also complete one of his most iconic works, The Banjo Lesson. Tanner had originally sketched this scene in the late 1880s while traveling in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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The Thankful Poor, 1894

In two paintings, Tanner portrays the beauty and dignity of African Americans, and does so in  a way that is purposefully counter to the increasingly derogatory depictions of African Americans in art, newspapers and other consumer publications. Numerous prints of these paintings were made and hung in the homes of African Americans as a source of pride and inspiration.  Tanner would produce few, if any other, such paintings of African Americans. Regardless, wherever Tanner traveled in the world, he captured the vibrancy of the people he saw around him.

 

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The Young Sabot Maker

With his religious paintings, he especially played with color and light.

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Resurrection of Lazarus

After being moved by Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus, department store magnate and art critic Rodman Wanamaker offered to sponsor a trip to Palestine. Tanner traveled throughout North Africa and the Near East. The journey further informed Tanner’s work with religious narrative.

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Mosque in Cairo

Aside from The Banjo Lesson, Tanner is now most often remembered for the breadth and beauty of his religious themed works.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The Anunciation, 1897

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Jesus Visiting Nicodemus, 1899

 

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The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, 1907

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Daniel in the Lion’s Den

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Flight into Egypt, 1923

In 1899, Tanner married Swedish-American opera singer Jessie Olsson. They had one child, Jesse. Tanner continued to paint, exhibiting internationally. He expanded his list of patrons.  In 1902, over the course of four months, four of his paintings – Sarah, Hagar, Rachel and Mary – were reproduced in the Ladies’ Home Journal. He became renowned though he would always struggle financially.

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As World War I broke out in Europe, Tanner became depressed. He was unable to paint. Or what he painted while respected was not being purchased.  He wanted to serve in some way but he was too old to enlist. He shared an idea with the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page. His idea: turn the unused fields around the base hospital in Vittel, France into a vegetable garden and organize the convalescing soldiers as a work force. Provide food. Build morale. Page reached out to his counterpart in France and soon after Tanner was attached to the American Red Cross as a Lieutenant in the Farm Services Bureau. In 1919, for his efforts, Tanner received a Foreign Service certificate signed by Woodrow Wilson.

Postwar, Tanner would resume painting and once more receive accolades for his work. In 1923 Tanner was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his work as an artist. In 1927 he became the first African American to be granted full membership in the National Academy of Design in New York.

Tanner lived during one of the most contentious periods in U.S. race relations.  While he chose to emigrate to France, he always considered himself an American. He was a mentor and adviser to artists of all races studying in Europe. He was vocal in print and in person in support of equal opportunity for artists of all backgrounds. On May 27, 1937, he died at his home in Paris.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), American painter;

Today, Tanner is most often referenced as one of the great African American painters. I suspect he would simply like to be known as a great American artist. His painting, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City was the first work of art by an African-American artist to be added to the White House Permanent Collection. It was acquired in 1996 from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist.

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Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, 1886

 

Sources & Additional Reading

Treasures of the White House: Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City

Henry Ossawa Tanner Wikipedia Page

A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner by Will Smith

http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=4742

Khan Academy Course on Tanner’s Banjo Lesson

The Adventures of an Illustrator by Joseph Pennell

Photograph of the Extended Tanner Family, 1890

Henry Ossawa Tanner| Realist/Symbolist painter

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Race, Religion and Visual Mysticism by Kelly J. Baker

Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist  by Marcia M. Mathews

White House Announcement of Acquisition of Tanner Painting

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.  Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.  Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.  The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.  The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.  Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.  They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.  Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.  I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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