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.
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."
After an unsuccessful attempt at opening a photography studio in Atlanta and teaching drawing at Clark Atlanta University, 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.
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—paid for by an art critic. After this trip, his paintings developed a powerful air of mystique and spirituality.
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. Tanner works against this familiar stereotype by producing a sensitive reinterpretation. Instead of a generalization the painting portrays a specific moment of human interaction. 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'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. 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.
Tanner died peacefully in Paris, France on May 25, 1937. After his death, there have been numerous exhibitions and, in 1973, a U.S. commemorative stamp honoring Tanner.
Tanner's technique influenced other well-known artists. In addition, some of Norman Rockwell's illustrations deal with the same themes and compositions that Tanner pursued.
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. 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.
Other important works are owned by:
- Hampton University Museum, Virginia
- William H. (Bill) and Camille O. Cosby
- Estate of Sadie T.M. Alexander
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- Musee d'Orsay, Paris
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Rutgers University
- Cedar Rapids Art Gallery, Iowa
- Art Institute of Chicago
- Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan
From Wikipedia and www.anothershadeofcolor.com.