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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Artist Henry O. Tanner

First Freedom: Escape into the Night

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner

She prayed that the night would be kind.

Touching her daughter's shoulder one last time, her fingers pressed as lightly as a butterfly's landing. Out in the night, on a path she herself could not follow, her daughter faced every kind of danger. The mother finally withdrew her hand.

She strained to catch a last glimpse of her daughter. Sarah Elizabeth became enveloped in darkness, accompanied only by the "conductor." She had no idea if Sarah would escape to safety. Yet, as her daughter disappeared, she reaffirmed her determination to give the only gift she could—an uncertain chance for freedom. *

This mother's courage led to all eleven of her children escaping from slavery through the Underground Railroad. [1]

Sarah Elizabeth's son, Henry Ossawa Tanner, became a celebrated, groundbreaking artist. Henry never met his grandmother, but her sacrifice gave him the freedom to express his faith and his art.

When Sarah escaped to freedom, she arrived in Pittsburgh before the Civil War broke out. There, Sarah met a young man—a graduate of Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh.

After their marriage, Benjamin Tucker Tanner later became a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He founded a newspaper as part of his literary career, also working for civil rights and the end of slavery. [2]

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
Sarah Elizabeth Tanner. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner: "Mother of Henry O. Tanner," n.d.

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
"Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner," 1897. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Their son, Henry Ossawa Tanner, was born on June 21, 1859. For his seven children, Bishop Tanner "always stressed the importance of an intelligent faith and...a deep sense of dignity..." [3]

The children received an excellent education in Philadelphia, where the family moved when Henry was a young child. It was in Philadelphia that young Henry, at about the age of 13, set out on a walk that changed his life.

When he paused to watch a street artist, he became fascinated by the way the painter created magic with brush and paint, bringing to life the hillside but with a new interpretation. Henry knew in that instant he wanted to become an artist. "It set me on fire," he later recalled. [4]

His mother lent him 15 cents, and he bought his first brushes and paint. However, his father was not thrilled with his choice of career. Bishop Tanner later apprenticed his son to a miller, but Henry, never strong, became ill.

Faced with the reality that their son might easily have died, both parents began supporting Henry's dream. After learning as much as he could on his own, Henry enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1880.

His instructor and mentor there, the innovative artist Thomas Eakins, also encouraged him in his art. The two remained close professional friends.

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner.
"Portrait of Henry O. Tanner," 1900. Painting by Thomas Eakins.

After the Academy, life took another hard turn when Henry tried to combine his artistic dreams with starting a business. He moved to Atlanta, opening a photography studio, but his business failed.

Second Freedom: A New Beginning

Discouraged, Henry decided to test the waters of a wider artistic life in Europe. In 1891, he made plans to study in Rome.

He stopped over in Paris, and at first, he recalled:

"I was depressingly lonesome. How strange it was to have the power of understanding and being understood suddenly withdrawn! The strangeness of it, perhaps, is what made me feel so isolated." [5]

Looking back via an article he wrote in 1909, Henry described his lodgings with rueful affection as:

"...this little room of mine with its Empire bed and its heavy hangings, its little wash-basin, with pitcher holding scarcely more than a quart...the linen sheets so cold to one already half-frozen, and that little fireplace" where he could never get warm. He speculated that he might fare better if he got up on the roof and warmed himself by the chimney! [6]

Yet, he loved it. Rome faded from his future. He stayed in Paris, becoming a student at the Académie Julian, finding friends, developing his artistic style, and gradually gaining recognition.

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
"Coastal Landscape, France," 1919. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

He fought through periods of painful self-doubt, but friends encouraged him, and he was helped by his parents and others who supported him in his work.

Just before the turn of the century, Henry married musician Jessie Macauley Olssen on December 14, 1899. They made their family home in France.

Tenderness seems to glow from this painting done by Henry in 1909. His wife and their son, Jesse, served as models for "Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures." Looking at Mary's expression in the painting, I think the artist captures a look of warmth, closeness, but also a foreshadowing of the pain to come.

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
"Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures," 1909. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry made two trips to the Holy Land, and his art became infused with the clear light he found there. He often turned to Biblical themes for his paintings.

Third Freedom: His Faith

His son Jesse recalled that his father loved the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd; it was his favorite subject. Henry felt that “God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us.” [7]

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
"The Good Shepherd," 1930. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Putting his faith and freedom into his art, he made scenes from Biblical history come alive with light—and with both vivid and muted color.

He wrote:

"My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting … but at the same time give the human touch 'which makes the whole world kin' and which ever remains the same." [8]

In 1923, Henry was made an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour. It is the highest honor in France.

Christmas Paintings: 3 Turning Points of Freedom for Henry O. Tanner
"The Holy Family," c1909-1910. Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

The way he captured expressions makes me, the viewer, realize that these were flesh and blood people, caught in an extraordinary moment in history when everything changed for them and for the world.

I find something new every time I look at "The Holy Family" painting above: Joseph: concerned, a little uncertain, but poised to act. Mary: thoughtful and focused at the light-filled manger.

Henry Ossawa Tanner took these three turning points of freedom, started by his grandmother, and added his own new dimension of art and faith.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, June 21, 1859 - May 25, 1937


* My opening story is based on true events, although the details are from my imagination.

1. "Mother of Henry O. Tanner," Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).

4. Woods, Naurice Frank Jr., Henry Ossawa Tanner: Art, Faith, Race, and Legacy, 2017.

5 & 6. Tanner, H. O. "The Story of an Artist's Life." The World's Work, Vol. 18, 1909.

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