Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Religious Realism”

"Daniel in the Lion's Den" by Henry Ossawa Tanner
This is Tanner’s “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (1917). I love how, even though the lions are not attacking, the painting still makes you feel that they are powerful, dangerous creatures.

A Remarkable Man:

Born in 1859, Henry Tanner was “the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim” (Wikipedia). His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his mother had escaped slavery through the underground railroad. Tanner’s talent and heritage resulted in unique, insightful and evocative works, qualities that happily were recognized in his lifetime. To this day, however, I believe he is not as well-known as he deserves to be.

Tanner’s road was not an easy one, but in due course he settled in Paris where race was less of an obstacle than it had been in America. He had a happy home life, marrying a Swedish-American woman and fathering a son with her. His work so impressed one critic that he was given an all-expense paid trip to the Middle East in order to study the landscape there. And in 1923, Tanner was honoured by the French government with the highest order of merit for his life work.

Though Tanner painted many subjects, he is best known for his religious paintings. An excerpt from a letter written to his father in 1896 coincides with a shift towards this area of focus. At that time he wrote, “I have made up my mind to serve Him [God] more faithfully.” Tanner is considered a realist painter. You can see from his work that he presented people as more than mere “types.” His use of colour and light create a sense of intimacy and his religious works show a devotion that is rooted in the real world. Gorgeous.

Here are a number of his works:

(sourced from wikiart.org / public domain)

“Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist”
a book by Marcia Mathews

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Religious Realism”
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