The newest portrait at the Baltimore Museum of Art reveals a man of God, quietly searching his soul, perhaps contemplating the tasks ahead. It is a small painting, a remarkably private view of a very public man. In 1897, when Benjamin Tucker Tanner posed for this painting, the 62-year-old minister was one of the most renowned church leaders and intellectuals in the African-American community.
Bishop Tanner's face, bathed in a warm, loving light, is the face of a leader, a thinker and a poet, but also of a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. It was a portrait painted for love, not money, by the bishop's eldest son, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), who was then becoming an internationally acclaimed artist.
This rare visual record of the spirit of two prominent 19th-century African-American men will go on display at the BMA thanks to Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown. A painting of "enormous importance," Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner is the first work by Henry Tanner to enter a public collection in Baltimore in recent years. Morgan State University owns two paintings, a landscape and an allegorical genre piece.
"The painting is the most important 19th-century American painting to enter the BMA's collection in over a quarter of a century," said BMA director Doreen Bolger. "It is the most significant work by an African-American artist in our collection."
"This is a tremendous indication of the seriousness that the museum and its trustees have toward building a significant collection by African-American artists," said Eddie Brown.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, considered a leading religious painter in America at the turn of the 19th century, was one of the first African-Americans to win international success. He studied painting under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, eventually making his career in France. When he painted this portrait of his father, he had just become one of three American artists - along with John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler - to be collected by the French government.
"Tanner expatriated to Europe because if he had stayed in the United States, he would always have been a Negro artist," said Leslie King-Hammond, a leading scholar on African-American art. "In France he had a chance to establish himself and win prizes and develop his own unique style.
"This piece represents one of the few portraits Tanner ever did and is also a portrait of a man who helped shape what the AME church would become."
Bishop Tanner is particularly significant to Baltimoreans because the minister was pastor of the city's Bethel African-Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866. While he was living in the area, Tanner also fashioned one of his most important works, An Apology for African Methodism, a treatise on the schisms between the black and white Methodist churches.
In the past two years, the BMA has acquired 29 works by black artists, both historical and contemporary, as part of a continuing effort to increase its collection of African-American art. Earlier this year, the Browns, who had already contributed to this drive, agreed to help the museum secure a major 19th-century work.
Finding the work
Working with a Philadelphia art dealer, the BMA located the Tanner piece in the collection of Rae Alexander-Minter, the bishop's great-granddaughter and the painter's grandniece. A published Tanner scholar, Alexander-Minter is vice president for governmental and public affairs at the Metropolitan College of New York. She inherited the painting from her mother, Sadie T.M. Alexander, who held the country's most significant collection of Tanner art.
"It was not difficult for me to part with the bishop because my [late] mother's mandate to me and my sister is that the Tanner paintings have access to a wider audience than they would have in one's home," Alexander-Minter said.
In recent years, she has placed Tanner paintings in such public collections as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the White House. Although the portrait of the bishop had been in her family's collection - it hung in the library in her parents' house - she considers its move to Baltimore, where the bishop did so much work, as a "coming home."
Henry Tanner's painting techniques, his treatments of light and dark, often draw comparisons with those of his teacher, Thomas Eakins. Like Eakins, Tanner often depicted a figure coming out of darkness as it does in Bishop Tanner, said Kathy Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum, which owns a rare portrait of Tanner's mother.
"This [Bishop] picture shows a much different side of Tanner than his big salon paintings and his religious paintings," Foster said. "He didn't do many portraits, which is another reason this painting is a treasure for the Baltimore museum. ... It gives you background on the artist's spirituality, on that theme in his work."
Bolger, the BMA director, said she loves the intimate feel of the Tanner portrait. An inscription by the artist on the painting's lower right corner reads: "A hurried study of my dear/ Father/ Kansas City/H.O. Tanner/Kansas City/ Sep, 1897."
"It's a wonderful character study, and all these little touches make it so much more of a personal thing," Bolger said.
"I see a very dignified, very serene, very proud African-American man painted at a time when blacks were depicted as minstrels and certainly less than dignified," said Alexander-Minter. "I see him rising above those depictions and bringing with this ascension those who have been left behind."
The painting is a "partial and promised gift," which means that although the BMA will eventually own the portrait fully, the Browns and their daughters can retain partial ownership throughout their lifetimes. The painting will be displayed at the museum through March 30; current plans call for it to be exhibited at the BMA for at least three months every year.
This sort of arrangement is becoming increasingly common in the museum world, observers say.
"It's a nice way for donors to slowly relinquish a piece that might be of high value," said Foster. " ... That happens a lot in museums. This way, a donor can retain ownership and sometimes rotate the piece to their homes."
Because of the Tanner painting's connections to Baltimore, Nancy Davis, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Society, calls it "a milestone for the city and for the museum."
King-Hammond also perceives the acquisition as a "pivotal piece": One portrait of an African-American male by another.
"There are too few portraits and images of black males that speak to the integrity, the humanity, the artistry and just the sheer intellectual genius of these men who survived the ravages of discrimination in 19th- and early-20th-century America," she said.