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In 1879 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His decision to attend the school came at an exciting time in the history of artistic institutional training. Art academies had long relied on tired notions of study devoted almost entirely to plaster cast studies and anatomy lectures. This changed drastically with the addition Thomas Eakins as "Professor of Drawing and Painting" to the Pennsylvania Academy. Eakins encouraged new methods such as study from live models, direct discussion of anatomy in male and female classes, and dissections of cadavers to further familiarity and understanding of the human body. Eakins's progressive views and ability to excite and inspire his students would have a profound effect on Tanner. The young artist proved to be one of Eakins's favorite students; two decades after Tanner left the Academy Eakins painted his portrait, making him one of a handful of students to be so honored. At the Academy Tanner befriended artists with whom he would keep in contact throughout the rest of his life, most notable of these being Robert Henri, one of the founders of the Ashcan School. During a relatively short time at the Academy, Tanner developed a thorough knowledge of anatomy and an ability to transfer his understanding of the weight and structure of the human figure to the canvas.
Issues of race
Tanner's non-confrontational personality and preference for subtle expression in his work seem to belie his difficulties, but his life was not without struggle. Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work, racism was a prevalent condition in Philadelphia, as massive numbers of African Americans left the rural South and settled in Northern urban centers. Although painting became a therapeutic source of release for him, lack of acceptance was painful. In his autobiography The Story of an Artist's Life, Tanner describes the burden of race:
I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.
In an attempt to gain artistic acceptance, Tanner left America for France in the winter of 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he would spend the rest of his life there.
After an unsuccessful attempt at opening a photography studio in Atlanta and teaching drawing at Clark Atlanta University Tanner traveled to France in 1891, to the Academie Julian, and joined the American Art Students Club of Paris. Paris was a welcome escape for Tanner; within French art circles the issue of race mattered little. Tanner acclimated quickly to Parisian life.
In Paris, Tanner was introduced to many new artworks that would affect the way in which he painted. At the Louvre, Tanner encountered and studied the works of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Louis Le Nain. These artists had painted scenes of ordinary people in their environment and the effect in Tanner's work is noticeable. One example is the striking similarity between Tanner's "The Young Sabot Maker" (1895) and Courbet's "The Stonebreakers" (1850). Both paintings explore the theme of apprenticeship and menial labor.
He studied under renowned artists such as Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. With their guidance Tanner began to make a name for himself. His painting entitled "Daniel in the Lions Den", was accepted into the 1896 Salon. Later that year he painted "The Resurrection of Lazarus". The critical praise for this piece solidified Tanner's position in the artistic elite and heralded the future direction of his paintings, to mostly biblical themes. This painting would eventually lead to Tanner's first trip to the Middle East.
Upon seeing "The Resurrection of Lazarus", art critic Rodman Wannamaker offered to cover an all expenses-paid trip for Tanner to the Middle East. Wannamaker felt that any serious painter of biblical scenes needed to see this environment firsthand and that a painter of Tanner's caliber was well worth the investment. Tanner quickly accepted the offer. Before the next Salon opened, Tanner set forth for Palestine. Explorations of various mosques and biblical sites as well as character studies of the local population allowed Tanner to further his artistic training. His paintings developed a powerful air of mystique and spirituality. Tanner was not the first artist to study the Middle East in person. Since the 1830s, a growing interest in Orientalism had been growing in Europe. Artists such as Eugene Delacroix and later Henri Matisse made such tours to capitalize on this curiosity.
The Banjo Lesson
In 1893 on a short return visit to the United States, Tanner painted his most famous work, The Banjo Lesson. The painting shows an elderly black man teaching what is assumed to be his grandson how to play the banjo. This deceptively simple-looking work explores several important themes. Blacks had long been stereotyped as entertainers in American culture, and the image of a black man playing the banjo appears throughout American art of the late 19th century. Thomas Worth, Willy Miller, Walter M. Dunk, Eastman Johnson and Tanner's own teacher Thomas Eakins had tackled the subject in their artwork. These images however are often reduced to a minstrel type portrayal. Tanner works against this familiar stereotype by producing a sensitive reinterpretation. Instead of a generalization the painting portrays a specific moment of human interaction. The two characters concentrate intently on the task before them. They seem to be oblivious to the rest of the world which magnifies the sense of real contact and cooperation. Skillfully painted portraits of the individuals make it obvious that these are real people and not types. In addition to being a meaningful exploration of human qualities, the piece is masterfully painted. Tanner undertakes the difficult endeavor of two separate and varying light sources. A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on the right. The figures are illuminated where the two light sources meet; some have hypothesized this as a manifestation of Tanner's situation in transition between two worlds, his American past and his newfound home in France.
Tanner is often regarded as a realist painter, focusing on accurate depictions of subjects. While his early works, such as "The Banjo Lesson" were concerned with everyday life as an African American, Tanner's later paintings focused mainly on the religious subjects for which he is now best known. It is likely that Tanner's father, a minister in the African Methodist Church, was a formative influence in this direction.
Tanner's body of work is not limited to one specific approach to painting. His works vary from meticulous attention to detail in some paintings to loose, expressive brushstrokes in others. Often both methods are employed simultaneously. The combination of these two techniques makes for a masterful balance of skillful precision and powerful expression. Tanner was also interested in the effects that color could have in a painting. Many of his paintings accentuate a specific area of the color spectrum. Warmer compositions such as "The Resurrection of Lazarus"(1896) and "The Annunciation"(1898) exude the intensity and fire of religious moments. They describe the elation of transcendence between the divine and humanity. Other paintings emphasize cooler, blue hues. Works such as "The Good Shepard"(1903) and "Return of the Holy Women"(1904) evoke a feeling of somber religiosity and introspection. Tanner often experimented with the importance of light in a composition. The source and intensity of light and shadow in his paintings create a physical, almost tangible space and atmosphere while adding emotion and mood to the environment.
During World War I, Tanner worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department, at which time he also painted images from the front lines of the war.
Several of Tanner's paintings were purchased by Atlanta art collector J. J. Haverty, who founded Haverty Furniture Co. and was instrumental in establishing the High Museum of Art. Tanner's "Etaples Fisher Folk" is among several paintings from the Haverty collection now in the High Museum's permanent collection.
Tanner died in Paris, France on May 25, 1937.
Tanner's work was influential during his career. The early paintings of William Edouard Scott, with whom Tanner studied in France, showcase the influence of Tanner's technique. In addition, some of Norman Rockwell's illustrations deal with the same themes and compositions that Tanner pursued. Rockwell's proposed cover of the "Literary Digest" in 1922 for example shows an older black man playing the banjo for his grandson. The light sources mirror Tanner's "Banjo Lesson" almost identically. A fireplace illuminates the right side of the picture while natural light enters from the left. Both use similar objects as well such as the clothing, chair, crumpled hat on the floor.
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885 Oil on Canvas) hangs in the Green Room at the White House; it is the first painting by an African-American artist to enter the permanent collection of the White House. The painting is a landscape with a "view across the cool gray of a shadowed beach to dunes made pink by the late afternoon sunlight. A low haze over the water partially hides the sun." It was acquired during the Clinton administration from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist, by the White House Endowment Fund for $100,000.