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EPISODE 54: The Art of Henry O. Tanner

You may not know Henry Tanner’s work but we all should. Tanner “preaches with his brush” and shines a unique light on Biblical scenes through his painting.

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Welcome to Questions that Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I'm delighted to invite back to the podcast Russ Ramsey, a pastor and also a writer and a lover of art. In a previous podcast, Russ and I talked about his book Rembrandt is in the Wind, about loving and appreciating art. But I was struck by a chapter in your book, Russ, and I thought, “This deserves its own conversation just by itself.” So this is a followup of the previous one. We'll have a link in the show notes for the first one. You may want to listen to that one first. But you have a whole chapter about Henry Tanner, and my guess is that a whole lot of listeners have never heard of Tanner. If they've seen any of his work, they may not have necessarily registered who he was or what he did. So let me start, Russ—well, welcome back to Questions That Matter.

Thanks, Randy. It's good to be back with you.

Good to see you again. So why Tanner? Why did you include him in a book where you were including such famous artists as Michelangelo, van Gogh, Rembrandt, et cetera? Why Henry Tanner?

Well, for a couple of reasons. One, because, as I would run across Henry Tanner's work, I just loved it. I thought it was just really, really moving. And two, I wanted to have an African-American painter in the book. I wanted to write about…. Because I was writing about a lot of European, a lot of Western European classical art, and really wanted to represent more in the book than just that. And so Henry Tanner was a painter that, in researching and looking for African-American painters, he was a painter that I was really fascinated by and got into. So that's why he made it into the book. Also, he was late 1800s, which was something that… I wanted some chapters that were a little bit more recent. Late 1800s may not sound super recent, but when you're talking about other chapters dealing in the 1500s and 1600s, then we're getting up to speed. But I just want people to know about Henry Tanner's art because it's powerful.

Yeah. And, well, we'll come back to the whole theme about him being an African-American painter, because you have a really important reflection about that. So we will come back to that. But I also want to talk about that he was a Christian. He was a strong Christian, and at a certain point in his career, he made a decided commitment to paint scenes from scripture. So there's The Annunciation, and there's Nicodemus, and there's The Pilgrims of Emmaus. He said, “It is not by accident that I have chosen to be a religious painter. I have no doubt an inheritance of religious feeling, and for this I am glad, but I also have a decided and I hope an intelligent religious faith, not due to inheritance, but to my own convictions.” And so he chose to paint scenes from scripture. Tell us why. What did you learn about his motivation to do that?

Well, let me give you a little bit of his background, because I think that's important for understanding why he painted what he painted. So Henry Tanner was born in 1859, and he died in 1937. So African-American, born in 1859 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so he was born in the North. The Civil War happened 1861 to 1865, and so he was born before the Civil War, and the Civil War was happening when he was a child. The Emancipation Proclamation was 1863, and so he would have been about four or five years old when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. So he was the first of nine children. His father was a minister, Benjamin Tucker Tanner. He was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he was a second generation freedman and a third generation resident of Pittsburgh.

His mother: Her name was Sarah. She was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, and she was one of eleven children born to a slave, and her father was a slave owner. So Sarah's mother basically sent her children north by way of the Underground Railroad. And so Sarah, Henry's mother, was the child of a slave. She was born into a plantation and took the Underground Railroad north. And when she got…. Basically what would happen when you went through the Underground Railroad as a child is, if you were siblings, you would be scattered, and you would be placed in different cities. And so Sarah was moved, his mother was moved, to Pittsburgh. And so Henry grew up in that era, and he grew up, and those were his parents. And his middle name, Ossawa. Henry Ossawa Tanner is his name. His middle name comes from the comes from Osawatomie, Kansas, where the abolitionist John Brown initiated an antislavery campaign.

So Henry grew up around art. He grew up in a cultured home that had a high view of the importance of education. He had a sister who passed the medical boards. He grew up around this. So he was a Northerner during the Civil War and post Civil War era, living in Pittsburgh, and then he moved to Philadelphia, and he grew up around art and loved doing art.

From the age of 13, he started painting. He and his father took a walk in a park there in their city and saw a man painting a tree. And the 13-year-old Henry Tanner just was transfixed by seeing this man put on paper the tree that he was looking at with his own two eyes. And he was fascinated and he wanted to learn how to do that. And so you have, in young Henry Tanner, parents who were connected to slavery and the Civil War, and he's also a child who is fascinated by art in a country that is not really welcoming and hospitable to African-Americans doing anything other than African-American cultural things. They were very segregational and very separatist in the kinds of experiences they had, even living in the North. And so he found his way into studying art and actually started studying under Thomas Eakins, who was the head of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. And he began to study under him. And Eakins recognized in Tanner a great talent and really pushed him to learn to do this. And so, as a young painter, he was trying to find his creative voice, his artistic voice, and genre painting was something that was popular and was a way people would go, and he would do paintings of Roman mythology or biblical scenes. And as he started to get some recognition, he ended up moving to Atlanta, which is fascinating enough, to think that he moved to Atlanta, where he taught art and drawing in college. But this is no more than 14 or 15 years after the Civil War, that he's in the South, and he's doing this.

Anyway, he was trying to find his voice. And the first couple paintings that I found from Henry Tanner were African-American genre paintings. There's one called The Thankful Poor, which is a powerful painting of what appears to be a grandfather and a grandson sitting at a very humble table, praying over a meal.


And it's a moving, moving painting. And then there's another one called The Banjo Lesson, which is a child sitting on a man's lap, both African-American, and the boy is learning how to play the banjo. The man is teaching him. And that idea of pedagogy, of one generation teaching another generation, was a theme that continues through Tanner's work his whole life. But he painted those two paintings and realized pretty quickly that people were regarding him as an African-American painter who painted African-American subjects. And he didn't want to be that. What he wanted to be was a great artist. He wanted to be a recognized artist around the world. He said this. He moved to Paris, which I might be getting ahead of myself a little bit, but he moved to Paris in order to kind of get out of the American stigma that went with him being an African-American painter. And he said this: He said, “In Paris, no one regards me curiously. I'm simply M. Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there on terms of absolute social equality.” And that's what he wanted. But he learned that if he was going to continue to paint African-American scenes or scenes of black people, that he would be regarded by society as a black painter painting black people. And he would never really be taken as seriously as a lot of the artists that he studied with and that he revered.

And so he made a very calculated decision to not do that anymore. And so, for a lot of folks, what they know about Henry Tanner is they know The Banjo Lesson, and they know The Thankful Poor, and they think, “Here’s an African-American painter who paints great African-American scenes,” when in truth, he painted two, just two. And the rest of them are mostly biblical scenes. And he moved over to that subject matter because, one, it was commercially popular, but two, it was a representation of his own personal faith that he wanted to bear witness to the testimony of scripture in his art. And three, he wanted to present paintings that wouldn't segregate him in the minds of viewers who would see his paintings.

And so he tells this funny story about how he, when he painted the bagpipe. He painted a painting called The Bagpipe Player and The Banjo Lesson, and in The Bagpipe Player, it's white people playing bagpipe, and in The Banjo Lesson, it's African-American people. And he presented them both at an exhibition, and the judges of the exhibition found his banjo lesson painting with the African-American characters in it to be a little too… not as culturally familiar as The Bagpipe Player. The irony being that a black man painting black people was seen as not as racially familiar as a black man painting white people. So he made a decision that he was going to not be pigeonholed according to his race, which had an impact on the subject matter that he chose to paint, which left us some very beautiful, poignant paintings. We have several of them in our church, reproductions of them on the walls, but also as a reminder to us of the injustice of what he experienced, because what we could have had was an incredible legacy and testimony of the experience of his culture at that time, represented in art that he created. But there was a cost to doing that that would have precluded him from becoming the kind of artist that he wanted to be. And there's still a lot of that happening.

I regularly talk about all of the resources that we’ve put together at the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I want to highlight one right now. It's our Keeping the Faith, and it is a whole library and collection of resources for you, parents and grandparents. It's a whole entire program with courses and materials that have been developed to equip you, parents and grandparents and other caring adults, for intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got videos, we've got articles, we've got study courses. This is one of the things we've made as a major emphasis on our newly designed, award winning website. And I really want to encourage you to check it out. And even if you are not a parent, that you'll check it out and recommend it to the parents that you know or perhaps use it at your church in Sunday school. It's a wealth of things, resources for equipping the next generation of disciples.

Yeah. And you go into that in the chapter, and he's a complex figure. And one of the terrible tragedies is, in our mind, we want to paint people as flat characters, “Oh, he's just an African-American,” or, “She’s just a woman,” or, “They are just….” and that's terribly unfair and terribly wrong. It's just not true. We're all very complex. Even though he stopped painting those paintings of black Americans, those two paintings are incredible masterpieces, and they're revolutionary or rebellious against the caricatures of the way African-American people were portrayed in popular art. So, again, I found the chapter tremendously challenging for me, wanting to look at art, wanting to be introspective about my own tendencies for racism and racial prejudices, and then also an appreciation for the human aspect of those biblical scenes. Let's turn our attention that way, because in his painting The Annunciation, which I just found out, we're going to be including a copy of that in an Advent devotional we're putting together at the Institute. So I'm very excited about that. And then also The Raising of Lazarus. I mean, there are a lot of works of art about these things, and they can tend to focus in on the supernatural and the amazing moment this is. But Tanner did that for sure. But it's also about the human emotion, the expression on Mary's face, and the expression of the people around Lazarus. They're just filled with emotion.

Yeah. Yeah. If you're listening, and you've never seen Henry Tanner's The Annunciation, make a note to look that up today online, because it's just different. A lot of paintings of the Annunciation, and this is when the Virgin Mary is being told by the angel of the Lord that she's going to bear the Christ. A lot of paintings of that historically would depict Mary as a young woman, and then the angel would be some sort of radiant man with some sort of glow about him. And Tanner doesn't do that. He paints… I won't spoil the surprise because I want you to look it up. But the way that he paints the angel of the Lord had never been done before. And it was so revolutionary that people were just amazed by, not just the painting, but the creative choices that Henry Tanner had made in order to achieve this painting. And it involves light. And one of the things that it does is the way that the angel of the Lord is illuminated makes Mary kind of the central…. She really is the focal point because the light is falling on her, and you see her, and she's kind of got her robe and her blankets sort of gathered around her to convey some of the fear that she's feeling, and at the same time, she's sitting up and she's leaning in a little bit. There’s courage represented there. And it's also subtle.

One of the things that happened early in Tanner's career is he would paint these biblical scenes, though he'd never been to the Holy Land, and people…. There was a financier. Wanamaker was his name. He had retail stores in the US, loved Henry Tanner's work, and so he funded a trip for Tanner to go to the Holy Land, because Tanner's instinct about what those biblical scenes might have looked like was so close that he thought it's almost as though he's already been there, but he hasn't. So if he was able to go, he could sketch what it's really like, and the paintings would be pretty true to form of what the place is like. And so he went and came back with all of these sketches and journals and things.

So when you look at his biblical scenes, there's a lot of geographical accuracy and architectural accuracy to the way that things were built. That’s sort of built into that. But, yeah, the way that he captures people, and the way that he conveys the drama through just really subtle details, in the way that they sit, in the way that their faces look, is really just sort of a clinic in composition and creative brilliance.

All right, so I have to pause to do a commercial for your book. So I want our listeners to hear: Do you hear the depth of background that Russ goes into? He wants to do a biographical background, but he's also doing historical background, and then he's also talking about the work of art and then the deep, penetrating, pastoral, spiritual implications for our spiritual growth. And I've read some other things about art, but I've never seen anything that pulled all of these together. And so I was so grateful for that.

And again, his paintings of the biblical scenes draw our attention to some things that we might just assume or overlook or take for granted reading in the scripture. At one point, you said, “As a painter of biblical scenes, Tanner didn't just want people to see scripture. He wanted to show it to them. This is what artists do.” So say a little bit about that. How does an artist contribute to the advancement of the kingdom? Because my guess is there are a whole lot of Christians who are artists or artistically inclined, and they feel alienated or left out or not appreciated, but you're shining a light on there's something that artists can do that really contributes toward our loving God with all of who we are.

Okay. I love this question. This is something that I just…. When you look at a painting, the painter, if they're worth their salt, they are taking you on a narrative journey, when you walk up to a painting and you look at it. And you don't realize it's happening, but you're getting worked. And the reason you're getting worked is because the painting will draw your eye, almost to a person. Everybody will look at the same thing first, and it will be whatever the subject, the main subject is, whatever is most illuminated. And if it's a person, what you will look at is you'll look at them, and you will do what we do when we look at any person. And that is you'll notice where their eyes are looking, and you'll look at what they're looking at. And then whatever they're looking at will oftentimes direct you to a third thing in the painting. And before you know it, you've been given a narrative in a single frame. You've been told a story in a single frame. And so when artists paint pictures… like Henry Tanner. When Henry Tanner paints a picture of the annunciation, it's not like you're looking just at a still photograph of, “Well, there's a woman, and there's an angel, and there's this exchange we know from scripture happening.” He's taking your eye here first, and then here, and then here, and then here, and it's unfolding in a particular way. And that's the idea for him of wanting not just to tell you the scripture, but to show it to you and to show it to you as the curator and the narrator of the story. He does that.

He has a great painting of Jesus and Nicodemus on the roof talking at night, and it's this kind of dark setting, and there are two men sort of sitting on the wall of the roof, speaking with each other. And in a very subtle way, not even something that you notice immediately, Jesus’ chest is glowing, like a lot of painters kind of will signify the deity of Christ with a halo or something like that. And what Tanner chooses to do is a warm heart. That's what he gives in this scene of Jesus and Nicodemus, Nicodemus being fearful of being known for somebody who's curious about the claims of Christ, as a religious leader. He’s speaking with Jesus, who is warm toward him and whose heart is a flame, and it's so subtle. But that's a great example of Tanner saying, “I don't want to just tell you the story of Jesus talking to Nicodemus. I want to show it to you,” and give you this kind of narrative.

And so you mentioned something about Christian artists and trying to figure out, how do we do this? I get questions sometimes from Christian artists about, “How do I make good Christian art?” And the answer that I typically will give is, “Don’t try to make good Christian art. Try to make honest art. If you make honest art, then your faith will be borne out in the truth of what it is that you're wanting to say,” but we all know what it's like to walk up to something that's trying really hard to be Christian and art that's trying really hard to be Christian. And usually what it is is it’s trying really hard to be inspirational. Or it's trying really hard to be idyllic. Or it's trying really hard to be some sort of representation of a world that's different from the one that we all know we live in.

And so if you're a Christian and you're wanting to make art that bears witness to Christ, then tell the truth. Tell the truth about the brokenness of the world, about your own struggles, about the mercy and the grace of Christ toward people who are these walking contradictions of corruption and grace at the same time. And Tanner's work does such a beautiful job with that. There’s a there's a reverence and a mystery and a humanity that he gives to Jesus. I think of one painting that he has of Jesus walking on the water, and it's at the same time beautiful and also ghostly in a way that would have been terrifying to see in person, because it would have defied all of the rules of how the world works, that people don't walk on water. They sink in water. And so he created Jesus almost as an apparition through the clouds, through the fog of the lake. But it's poignant.

So, to summarize a lot of what I'm saying, it is a good exercise, when you walk up to a painting, to try to discern, “Where did my eye go first? And then where did it go? And how is the sequence in which I'm looking at this unfolding a narrative for me? How is this artist not just giving me a picture, but telling me a story in a single frame?”

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You quote one of Tanner's biographers. You say that Tanner wanted to “preach with his brush,” and I think that's what he did. I do want to say I'm anticipating some of our listeners might be getting nervous, because I had this conversation on a previous podcast with Brett McCracken, and why there is a tension or a difficulty for some artists in churches. And the task of doing theology is the need to be faithful to the text and to be precise and accurate. The nature of art is to explore and to color outside the lines and to be creative. And so there is a danger for artists who may want to only be avant garde or pressing the envelope or whatever illustration you want. So I want to tell our listeners, my conversation partner today, Russ Ramsey, is a pastor of a PCA church, a denomination that's really particular about right doctrine, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm a member of a PCA church, so this isn't loosey goosey theology. But God made our world filled with physical beauty, and he inspired his word to be filled with lots of poetry and imagery. So we shouldn't divide these as it has to be one or the other. We must pursue both.

Yeah. And I think we have evidence from scripture that that's fair. That's a fair way to approach it, because when you look at Deuteronomy, the instruction that the Lord gives parents for their children is he says, “Tell them the stories. Tell them the stories about Me.” He doesn't say, “Read the parchment,” right? He says, “Tell them the stories.”

Oh, good, good.

And so, for every parent, when they're sitting down and telling the story of Moses and the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, and you're telling that story to a child, I mean, you're bringing drama. You're fleshing out details. Scripture is written in thrift, right? It was written at a time when you couldn't go to Kinko’s and buy reams of paper and go on every rabbit trail that you wanted. And so there's an efficiency to the way scripture is written that is designed to engage the imagination. In fact, I would contend that if we're not reading scripture with an engaged imagination, we're not reading it correctly. And it's not adding to scripture to let our imaginations do some of the work of interpretation, because it wasn't written to tell us every last detail. It was written to give us enough of the details that we, as human beings, could then supply.

So an example of that is we're not told how Joseph felt when Jesus was being born in the manger. We're not given really any information about Joseph's part of that experience. But if you're a father who has been in the room when a child has been born, you can imagine how Joseph felt. You can imagine the helplessness that he felt, the fear, the joy, the anticipation, the desire to be busy doing something helpful, but not sure what that might be. Those are the things that… I think it's a true reading of scripture to infer things that are reasonably the case.

Now when it comes to art and creating things and adding things. I think about Michelangelo's David. Michelangelo, when he carved David fighting Goliath, he made David naked. And that's a detail that is not in scripture, right? So is Michelangelo playing fast and loose with the text of the Bible? I don't think so. I think what he is doing is he's saying, “All right, I'm trying to convey who David was in this moment. And David is a young man who's about to face a giant, and all he's got is a sling and some stones. How can I present him in as vulnerable a light as possible? Make him naked.

And so Michelangelo's version of David is completely nude, to emphasize to the viewer just how vulnerable he really was in that confrontation he was about to enter into. Is that adding to Scripture or distorting Scripture? No. I think he's saying, “The medium that I'm using to tell this story is a single block of stone. I don't have pages, and I don't have written words. So I'm trying to just give you something to look at that will tell you as much of the story that the pages of scripture has as possible. And one of the ways that I'll convey just how drastically different David was from his opponent is I will reduce him down to nothing but the skin he was born in. And that's it.”

Oh, man. Well, I want to continue this for hours. I think I said that the last time we talked, but I do need to draw it to a close. I just want to say, in closing, art and beauty, it points us to another world. And I think it's got tremendous evangelistic power. I think for us to talk to our non-Christian friends who appreciate art and music and beauty, we can use that line of apologetics. It's the hope-based apologetics or it’s the beauty of this world points to another world. I love the line toward the end of The Weight of Glory, where Lewis preached and then wrote, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though God knows even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words, to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” And I just think this is an underused and underappreciated line of apologetics to point people to the God who made our world so beautiful. So, Russ, thank you for serving the body of Christ with this great book. And do you still post some things on a regular basis about art? I know there was a time that you were doing that.

Yeah, I do. Every Wednesday I have a series on… just follow me on my social media accounts, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I have a series that I call Art Wednesday, where over the course of the day on Wednesday, I'll post a series of about seven to ten paintings that are related in some way. They're either by the same artist, or they're thematically connected, or there's some sort of historical… so I might have a series of paintings that have been stolen and are still missing. Or I'll have a series of paintings that are all about fatherhood for Father's Day or something like that. And so that's every Wednesday, Art Wednesday. And then that's posted as a column over at Fathom magazine, fathom mag you can look up, and my column is there, Art Wednesday. But the reason I started doing that is I just found that my own social media stream was a discouraging place to go. There wasn't a lot of beauty there, and so I wanted to just introduce some beauty into the social media stream. And so I started doing this, and it's every week. I've been doing it for a couple of years now.

Oh, good for you! Oh, man.

And it’s been a great opportunity for me personally to just learn more about art. That's how I got to know Henry Tanner, was doing an Art Wednesday series during Black History Month on an African-American painter. And that's how I found him. And so you can follow me on social media. I'm sure you can put that in the show notes.

Yeah, I will. We will.

And every Wednesday, it will be something new. And so we've got da Vinci's sketches of the human form. So it's a series of his practicing of hands and faces and stuff like that.

This is wonderful! This is a gold mine! And so you have all of the previous ones archived for us to look at.


Right. But we need to bring this conversation to an end, because I have years worth of your blogs that I need to go read and look at. So, Russ, thanks so much for the time. To our listeners, thanks for listening in, and we really hope here at the C.S. Lewis Institute that all of our resources, including this podcast, will help you grow in heart and mind discipleship. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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