I have a poster print of this in my classroom, and it has become one of my favorite paintings. The theme is of course a popular one. Check out Annunciation by Phaidon Press, which contains over 100 representations of the scene in which the angel Gabriel greets Mary with an unexpected message. Tanner’s painting departs from the tradition a bit; Mary is not reading a book (representing her industry and piety in older paintings), she is dressed in simple peasant garb, her toes stick out from beneath her clothes, and there is no lily, representing purity, anywhere in the scene. Likewise, the angel is not (yet?) present in bodily form, as Mary sees only a gash of light.
Influenced by the realism of his teacher Thomas Eakins, Tanner chose not to depict, but rather to imply, Gabriel’s presence in the scene. For me the painting raises the question of the different ways God reveals himself, and highlights again the wonder of what Mary saw, heard, and accepted on that fateful day.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was the first African American painter to gain international acclaim. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Tanner was highly regarded in Europe and America as the foremost African-American painter of the day. In 1991, nearly a century later, a major retrospective containing more than 100 paintings, drawings, photographs, and memorabilia was sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where “The Annunciation” is currently housed. Shown in four major American museums, the exhibit served to refocus attention on this expatriate American artist who spent most of his adult life in France.
In his autobiography The Story of an Artist’s Life, Tanner described the difficulties of being ignored as an artist because of his 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.”
In an attempt to flee the racism of the United States and to gain acceptance as an artist, Tanner moved to France in the winter of 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he would spend the rest of his life there. He also visited the Holy Land in 1897 and 1898 in order to experience first-hand the region, its people, and its customs.
After 5 years of study at the Académie Julian in Paris, Tanner showed the painting The Young Sabot-makerat the prestigious Salon des Artistes Français. He participated continually in Salon exhibitions until 1924. In 1897 he became internationally known when the French government purchased “The Resurrection of Lazarus”.
In 1927 he became the first African American granted full membership in the National Academy of Design.
“The Annunciation” dates from 1898 and, along with “The Resurrection of Lazarus” from 1896, accentuates a warmer color spectrum in order to evoke the intensity of religious experience. According to James K. Kettlewell, curator of the Hyde Collection, “Religious themes were for Tanner, like Rembrandt, very personal modes of expression.” Tanner’s father was a prominent bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Tanner himself was a religious man who believed in the biblical stories he depicted in many of his paintings, though there is some question of how closely he remained in the orthodoxy of his youth. The young woman who posed for the figure of Mary in the Annunciation became Tanner’s wife in 1899.
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