Detail from stained glass window, The Resurrection, by John La Farge (1902) at Trinity Church in the City of Boston.
Detail from stained glass window, The Resurrection, by John La Farge (1902) at Trinity Church in the City of Boston.
Posted in Inspiration, tagged American history, art, art history, beauty, emigration, faith, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Inspiration, race relations, religion, storytelling on February 9, 2017| 10 Comments »
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
With his religious paintings, he especially played with color and light.
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.
Aside from The Banjo Lesson, Tanner is now most often remembered for the breadth and beauty of his religious themed works.
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.
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.
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.
Sources & Additional Reading
A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner by Will Smith
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Race, Religion and Visual Mysticism by Kelly J. Baker
Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist by Marcia M. Mathews
Posted in Books I Love, Inspiration, tagged Aaron Douglas, art, beauty, black history, books, Charles Buckley Falls, God's Trombones, history, illustration, Inspiration, James Weldon Johnson, poetry, religion on October 31, 2016| Leave a Comment »
Originally published in 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book, God’s Trombones, is a slim volume composed of a prayer and seven poems: Listen, Lord–A Prayer, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Go Down Death, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgement Day. The verses were inspired by his experiences attending black churches throughout the American south. The preachers’ oratory inspired Johnson to write these poems and, in the book’s preface, to reflect upon the nature of oration and folk traditions. His poems, I assume, inspired his artistic collaborators, Aaron Douglas and Charles B. Falls. The signature styles of two very different artists were brought together to complement Johnson’s words.
A publication was produced that is really quite distinctive with regard to words, images and overall concept. Johnson as scholar as well as poet produced a tome that captured in a unique way the power and importance of religion in the African American experience. He makes real even for those not having attended black churches how the preachers – God’s trombones – used word, rhyme and rhythm to give voice to the stories in the bible even when no bible was present.
It would be easy to pick up this book, to skip the preface and go straight to the poems. But don’t. Johnson’s preface is critical, for his brief and cohesive insights into religion and the American experience, and for his guidance in how to truly appreciate what he was attempting to do with this book.
“I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons. In the writing of them I have, naturally, felt the influence of the Spirituals. There is, of course, no way of recreating the atmosphere — the fervor of the congregation, the amens and hallelujahs, the undertone of singing which was often a soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon; nor the personality of the preacher — his physical magnetism, his gestures and gesticulations, his changes of tempo, his pauses for effect, and, more than all, his tones of voice. These poems would better be intoned than read; especially does this apply to “Listen, Lord,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Judgment Day.” But the intoning practiced by the old-time preacher is a thing next to impossible to describe; it must be heard, and it is extremely difficult to imitate even when heard. …”
“… The tempos of the preacher I have endeavored to indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath I have indicated by dashes. There is a decided syncopation of speech — the crowding in of many syllables or the lengthening out of a few to fill one metrical foot, the sensing of which must be left to the reader’s ear. The rhythmical stress of this syncopation is partly obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat; frequently this silent fraction is filled in by a hand clap. …”
The ensuing poems do read like song and the power of the words are echoed and strengthened by the complementary visusals.
Both Johnson and Aaron Douglas are considered key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles B. Falls was a noted illustrator and designer especially remembered for the posters he created during World War I and II as part of the Victory Books Campaign.
Over time the book has been reprinted numerous times including an edition by Penguin Classics, edited by Henry Louis Gates and with an introduction by Maya Angelou. As Johnson wrote in his preface the poems are really meant to be performed and over the years many individuals and institutions have done just that. Recordings can be found online. You can also find the book fully digitized and viewable online thanks to the Documenting the American South project at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my primary source for this post. I hope you have the opportunity to view the book in-hand or online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html
Sources & Additional Readings
God’s Trombones (digitized) – http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html
James Weldon Johnson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson
Aaron Douglas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Douglas
Charles Buckles Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Buckles_Falls
The New Negro Renaissance – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-renaissance.html
More about the Victory Books Campaign – http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/services/books.htm
to photograph its stained glass windows and along the way I stumbled upon Raphael’s Transfiguration (1516-1520). Not the original of course. That’s in the Vatican. This painting, which my guide at the time knew little about, appears to be a 19th century reproduction. The history of this particular painting – its creation and who gave it to the church – may be lost to history. However, I’ve since learned from a research fellow at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that such reproductions were popular and prints being produced as early as the 16th century.
Transfiguration was Raphael’s last painting. He died at the age of 37 leaving the painting incomplete. It is considered one of his most beautiful works out of a very large body of work. It was a treat to chance upon the reproduction and perhaps one day I will see the actual painting in person. Meanwhile, below is a photograph of Raphael’s handiwork and you can read details on the Vatican Museums website here.
When I first photographed the John La Farge mural Christ Woman at the Well inside Trinity Church in the City of Boston it was late afternoon and I had a much simpler point and shoot camera. The photograph turned out just fine. As I progress as a photographer though it has been fun to revisit works photographed in the past. These photos were taken with a more advanced camera and in the light of the early morning sun shining onto the mural.
Posted in Inspiration, tagged architecture, art, beauty, churches, colors, design, diversity, faith, Inspiration, Photography, religion, stained glass, stained glass windows on May 11, 2016| 2 Comments »
These windows at St. James’s Episcopal Church by local artisans Daniel Maher and Lyn Lovey express a creativity and diversity that is very modern. It is almost startling to look up and see them in the clerestory after viewing older works by Tiffany, Clayton & Bell, Goodhue and others in other parts of the building. In part that’s because of my own ignorance around stained glass making today and how churches continue to commission their design and installation. Working with glass remains a popular and contemporary art. And in places like St. James, the past and present harmonize quite nicely.
I’ve lived in Boston for almost twenty years and I can’t even imagine how many times I’ve walked along Massachusetts Ave past this church. When I’ve been tired I’ve stepped into its adjacent garden and sat on the church steps. I’ve always wondered, what was behind the red stone? I’m grateful to the rector, sexton and other staff for allowing me to appease my curiosity and glimpse the beauty inside. Until you can make your visit, below are a few images for you to enjoy. And there’s also a link to a very interesting overview of the windows available online.
Detail from chancel windows …
Detail from one of the choir angel windows …
Detail from the Resurrection window…
Detail from David with Harp …
Detail from Dorcas window …
Detail from Saint Dorothea window …
Detail from the Greenleaf window …
Detail from the Nativity window …
Additional Reading and Links
Posted in Inspiration, tagged architecture, art, beauty, Cambridge, faith, Inspiration, John La Farge, religion, St. James Episcopal Church, stained glass, stained glass windows, Tiffany on May 11, 2016| 2 Comments »
As you travel along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, just outside of Porter Square, you will find St. James’s Episcopal Church, a beautiful stone structure designed by Henry Martyn Congdon in a Richardsonian Romanesque style. While the church was founded in 1864, the cornerstone of the particular building in which I peered today was laid in 1888. Inside is quite a variety of stained and painted glass (and a bell re-cast by Paul Revere!).
While I visited at the wrong time of day and time of year for the best effect, the opalescent windows along the west wall still caught my attention. I visited in early morning in spring but for the windows to be seen as their designers — John La Farge and possibly Tiffany — intended, I will need to visit again in winter in the late afternoon just before sunset.
I’ve already marked my calendar. 🙂
I’m still sorting through pictures and their stories. More to come from my delightful visit. Meanwhile you can learn more about the church, its people and the history of the building here: http://www.stjames-cambridge.org/