November 24, 2019 01:30 PM EST Treadway Gallery


Henry Ossawa Tanner Virgin Mary in Meditation

Henry Ossawa Tanner, (1859-1937)
Virgin Mary in Meditation, c. 1905
oil on board
signed lower right, H. O. Tanner
12 x 9.5 inches

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859 to a prominent middle class family. His father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and despite his initial misgivings, he supported his son’s education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Tanner found an early mentor in Thomas Eakins, whose influence is seen in Tanner’s work throughout his career.  Upon graduation, Tanner eked out a living by opening a photography studio and teaching at Clark College.  


In 1891, Tanner left to study and teach in Paris.  He attended Academie Julian and studied under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens.  It was here that he was able to develop his personal style, free from the prejudice found in the United States.   Early in his career, he painted genre scenes of African American life which portrayed the dignity of his subjects despite poverty and prejudice.  One of his most famous paintings from this period, The Banjo Lesson,   demonstrated this intention of breaking the stereotypical caricature mold with its depiction of an older African American male teaching a young boy how to play the banjo, an instrument that had become an object of derision.  


Despite the rise of modernism, he remained painting in a firmly academic manner and focused entirely on religious subjects for the rest of his career.  A trip to North Africa and the Holy Land later in his career brought about a mystical quality in his work that furthered his personal style while remaining true to his unwavering academicism.  His paintings were shown regularly in the salons in Paris - his painting Resurrection of Lazarus won the Third Class Medal at the Salons des Artistes, Francais, 1897- as well as stateside.  Tanner became the mentor for early 20th century African American artists who made pilgrimages to France to study and paint.  In 1927, he was inducted into the National Academy of Design.


His work has been shown in exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Club; New York Public Library; Vose Galleries, Boston, MA; National Arts Clubs Galleries, NY; Corcoran Gallery Biennial; Century of Progress, Chicago; Philadelphia Art Alliance; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the University of California, Los Angeles.  In 1969, a traveling retrospective of over 80 of Tanner’s paintings, drawings, and studies was held by the Frederick Douglass Institute and the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington D.C. 


His work is found in the collections of Atlanta High Museum of Art, GA; Art Institute of Chicago; Carnegie Collection; Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the White House Collection.

Dewey F. Mosby, director emeritus of Colgate’s Picker Art Gallery and author of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1839-1937), wrote this concerning Virgin Mary in Meditation :


“the handling, with its vertical brushstrokes and touches of impasto highlights calls to mind Christ at the Home of Martha and Mary especially in the table cloth and background.  The treatment of (Virgin) Mary in Meditation calls to mind the earlier Thankful Poor….the pious attitude here is not too far removed from..The Savior.  The subtle halo above the head of the pious woman , who seems to be in meditation, suggests the figure is the Virgin Mary.  This notion is not mere speculation.  We know that beginning around 1900, and continuing until his last works in the 1930s, Tanner painted and drew numerous images of the Virgin Mary.” 


Mosby suggests that the possible model for the picture is Mrs. Atherton Curtis, which seems likely.  Atherton and Louise Curtis were friends and patrons, and Tanner and his wife, Jessie, had spent the autumn of 1902 with the Curtises in Mount Kisco, NY.  Tanner painted Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Atherton Curtis with Still Life (n.d.) which is in the collection of the Smithsonian.


It was not unusual for Tanner to appropriate his acquaintances as models—this composition is later seen in a sketch for Christ at the Home of Lazarus (collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).



Provenance:Provenance: Private collection, Paris to a private dealer, New York. This work is accompanied by a copy of a letter from Dewey F. Mosby, PhD, confirming authenticity and offering further scholarship of the work.

Exhibitions: Museum of Biblical Art, New York, New York, 2013-2014, circulating exhibition: Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, p. 47, Cat. No. 5 illus., exhibition traveled to: Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, Baltimore, Maryland; Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee.

Catalogue Note: Housed in an outstanding period Foster Brothers Marshall Fields frame.

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000


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