The subjects of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings are much the same as those of generations of artists before him: the Annunciation, Salome, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Nonetheless, the title of PAFA’s new exhibition — “Modern Spirit” — is entirely apt.
“We wanted to convey that Henry Tanner was a modern man, a leader in his field who was adventurous and who traveled the world,” said curator Anna Marley during a tour of the show. “The reason he became the leading American religious artist of this period is because of his modernization of the genre.”
PAFA’s exhibition, which places a major career retrospective of Tanner back in the school where he studied from 1879 to 1885, showcases that modernism, from the humble Mary visited by an abstract beam of light to a shadowy Salome, cloaked in Tanner’s trademark nocturnal blues.
The exhibition traces his career from his student days to his triumphs at the Paris Salon to his travels in the Holy Land. As museum director Harry Philbrick pointed out, it also provides a celebration of an overlooked African-American artist who studied under Thomas Eakins but could never be appreciated at home during his time.