Walters acquires rare 'personal' work


The bust, which gleams with a bronze-like patina, depicts a man of noble bearing and aristocratic mien whose intense, inward-looking gaze hints at long experience of the world and spiritual depth.

Yet, the artwork doesn't depict a head of state or powerful prince. Instead, it portrays a 19th-century African-American, Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, and it was sculpted in plaster with loving care by his artist son, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry Tanner was one of the few 19th-century African-Americans to win international recognition as an artist, and today he is best known for his lyrical depictions of ordinary black people who appear in portraits and genre scenes painted early in his career.

These works, like the bust of his father, brought a passionate humanism to depictions of African-Americans that contrasted sharply with the negative stereotypes produced by the larger society.

Tanner rarely attempted sculpture, however, which makes the Walters' recent purchase of Benjamin Tanner's bust an unusually significant acquisition, one of fewer than half a dozen such works thought to have been executed by the artist.

"It's a very personal work, not highly finished, and you can see how he's molded the piece rather spontaneously in clay or plaster," said William Johnston, associate director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters. "He didn't really consider himself a sculptor; he did this for his own family."

That's not all that sets the artwork apart. In addition to being one of the rare works in which Henry Tanner depicted a close family member, it also documents a powerful personality who was an important figure in Baltimore history in his own right. Benjamin Tanner was a religious thinker and civil rights activist whose ministry at Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church in the years immediately after the Civil War provided crucial leadership to the city's black community during an era of profound social upheaval.

A personal work

Henry Tanner was born in 1859 in Allegheny, Pa., and from 1879 to 1886 studied drawing, anatomy and photography at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia under Thomas Eakins. (The elder Tanner was deeply disappointed that his oldest son did not wish to follow his footsteps into the ministry.) The artist's first solo exhibition was held in Cincinnati in 1890; the next year, he departed for Europe, where he hoped to escape the racial prejudice that threatened his career as an artist at home.

Tanner settled in Paris, but illness forced him to return home in the summer of 1893. He may have executed the bust of his father during that visit, or completed it earlier in the Paris studio that he shared with American sculptor Hermon MacNeil (who later won renown for his vivid depictions of Native Americans). During that year, Tanner also painted his most famous picture, The Banjo Lesson, which depicts a tender father-son relationship that seems to have been at least partly autobiographical. In any case, Tanner returned in the next year to Europe, where he remained, except for occasional trips, devoting himself to painting mostly religious subjects until his death in 1937.

The Walters' sculpture complements a painting of Bishop Tanner by his son that was acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2002. The BMA's painted portrait, a luminous and affectionate character study dating from 1897, is a partial and promised gift from Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, whose generosity also made possible the Walters' acquisition of the sculpture this year.

"The broad endeavor of the Brown challenge is to fill in the blanks of our already excellent 19th-century collection with works by African-American artists," said Walters director Gary Vikan. "So to have the two Brown challenges converge on the same artist rendering the same figure in two different media is a real coup for the city."

Exciting acquisition

Like the BMA portrait, the Walters' sculpture was purchased from a surviving member of Tanner's family, Rae Alexander-Minton of New York, who is a grandniece of Henry Ossawa Tanner and the great granddaughter of Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner.

"It is a spectacular acquisition for the Walters," said Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at Maryland Institute College of Art and an expert on African-American art. "It's exceptional that two institutions in Baltimore have been able to get rare works from Tanner's hand depicting his father, because shortly afterward, Tanner devoted himself to religious paintings and produced no more works genre works or family portraits."

The BMA recently added two more Tanner works to its collection: a pair of etchings on religious subjects that will be included in an exhibition, opening July 6, tentatively titled Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Influence of Paris.

That exhibition will present important works by Tanner in the context of the European and American artists who inspired him and will include four major paintings by the artist on loan from the Des Moines Art Center. A follow-up exhibition in February of 2006 will look at Tanner's work in relation to other African-American artists.

"What's really exciting is that it gives us an opportunity to see Tanner's work in two different but very significant contexts," BMA director Doreen Bolger said of the two museum's holdings. "That's an amazing thing which wouldn't happen in most cities, and I'm hoping many visitors will make the odyssey between both institutions."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad