Opening Sunday, Aug. 17, “Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner” will be showing at the Dallas Museum of Art. The exhibition features two of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s most famous paintings, “The Thankful Poor” (1894), and “Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures” (about 1908). By displaying the two pieces side by side, observers can see both the similarities among the works as well as the contrast that separates Tanner’s early work from that which the artist painted later in his career.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 21, 1859, Henry Ossawa Tanner moved to Philadelphia and studied at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There, one of his masters’ professors was Thomas Eakins, who ultimately became one of Tanner’s greatest stylistic influences. He then went to Paris in 1891 where he studied at the Académie Julian under painters Jean-Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American painter to ever receive international acclaim.
“The Thankful Poor” is an oil painting of two African American males, one a child and the other, a much older grandfatherly-like figure. In the painting, they are sitting at a table, appearing to be in prayer, and in front of them are three white, empty plates. Tanner’s mother was a slave who escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad before making her way to Pittsburgh. As a result of his family’s experiences, much of Tanner’s earliest work portrayed scenes of racism and Black life. Unfortunately, pieces featuring Black life rarely attracted buyers, forcing Tanner to introduce new subjects and themes to his paintings. “The Thankful Poor” was the artist’s final work featuring Black subjects.
“Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures” depicts Mary and Christ as they lean against each other, holding the sacred scroll. Given the fact that Tanner’s father was a minister, it was no surprise that religion became an important part of his life and practice, as Tanner often painted scenes from the Bible. This painting exemplifies both the physical and spiritual bond between the mother and child. With the scroll colored bright gold, it captures focus from the rest of the painting, acting as a metaphor for the light that comes from religious texts and teachings. Photographic evidence shows that Tanner used his wife and son as models for the painting, suggesting that the piece is not just holy, but an intimate family portrait as well.
“Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner,” in collaboration with the Arts Bridges Foundation, will be featured at the Dallas Museum of Art from Aug. 17, 2021, through Jan. 2, 2022. Both paintings in the rarely-viewed exhibition have undergone extensive conservation and technical treatment by the museum. Admission to view the installation is free.
For more information, visit dma.org.