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Paradise Wow

Modest Show Permits Featured Artist To Speak Loud And Clear

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/14/2005

Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris At the Baltimore Museum of Art through May 28

Religious art rarely reaches for the uncanny. The sober sublime, sure—Western art is chock-full of serenely imposing works that convey their great import through the venerated techniques and craft of master artisans. Religious works that try to tap into religion’s bizarre undertow and then actually achieve that effect? Few and very far between.

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water” is one of those rare breeds. And after seeing this version of the familiar Biblical act you wonder why so many artists choose not to capture it with such sympathy for the fact that man walking on water is pretty freaking weird. And every decision Tanner makes as an artist conspires to convey that charged emotion. The large-scale painting is predominantly a dusty, gun-metal blue like deep water or a winter sky. The disciples themselves are in a boat located almost squarely in the middle of the canvas, cutting through and reflected in the water. The aquatic setting of this event is reinforced by Tanner cropping his sky to but a narrow, milky-blue background at the canvas’ top, less than a third of the whole frame. The only light source is the moon’s watery reflection in the lower left quadrant, a single spot of submerged radiance. Not even it can defy gravity, and yet there, in the upper-left quadrant, is a scintillant smudge that represents the water-walking Jesus.

Context is a funny thing, and in the case of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris, understanding the circumstance considerably amplifies a reputation. This intimate show—only 40 works from 26 artists, only eight of which come from the artist spotlighted in the title—continues the BMA’s ingeniously educational exhibitions, using its considerable holdings to highlight an artist or era. Essence of Line (staged in conjunction with the Walters Art Museum) turned the gallery tour into an art-history lesson about 19th-century French drawing. Lure of Paris offers a chance to see some gorgeous paintings in person and gain some understanding of just how good their creator was.

Over the past 10 to 15 years Tanner’s profile has been on continuous upswing, due in no small part to his renown as one of the most important African-American painters of the 19th century. (The White House even got in on the game, adding Tanner’s “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” [c. 1885] to its permanent collection, anointing Tanner the first black artist included in it.) Born in Pittsburgh in 1859 and raised in Philadelphia, Tanner took to art as a teen and never left it. He studied under American landscape legend Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but he left prior to graduating to work in the South, where he set up a photography gallery in Atlanta. Two patrons bought a parcel of his works, and with that funding Tanner left for Europe in 1891, where he would remain—barring visits to the States—until his 1937 death in Paris.

Tanner absorbed the reigning French styles of his day—he studied under Jean Paul Laurens and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant at the Académie Julian, he toured Egypt, Palestine, and Italy as he explored en vogue Orientalism, and headed to Barbizon to paint plein-air—but he was no mere mimic or follower of fashions. Lure of Paris calmly offers evidence of such in its thematic arrangements, grouping Tanner’s Parisian years into his riffs on French landscape tradition, Orientalism, and biblical. As you walk through the gallery, works from other artists who may have/did influence Tanner—with respect to the aforementioned “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water,” Picasso’s blue 1902 “Woman With Bangs,” the 1593 engraving “Christ Walks on the Water” attributed to Wierix II, Pierre-Charles Canot’s 1771 maritime scene “Sunrise”—are hung adjacent to his centerpiece paintings. It’s an effective presentation of the collage of ideas that go into a work, presented with a light touch. Guest curator James Smalles, associate professor of art history and theory at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, lets the show’s visuals tell its story without a preponderance of didactic text.

The strategy pays off commendably. Walking through and taking in the eight Tanners—especially “The Good Shepherd” and “Near East Scene”—would usually be treat enough, but placing them in the context of their aesthetic gestation highlights the painter’s creative mind. Take “Near East Scene,” for instance. What looks like an accomplished street scene at first glance becomes an arresting painting when compared to more typical Orientalism images of the time. Tanner catches an innocuous moment of men walking and crouching by a wall rather than the static, posed portraiture some Oriental scenes favored. His composition is a little skewed and not informed by a classically formed vantage. His palate is overwhelmingly soft and muted; it exudes the dull aura of a 60-watt light bulb wrapped in a piece of canvas. And his delicate realization of the obviously scorching desert day is carried out as almost imperceptible rims of white lining his foregrounded figures. It’s an Orientalism scene that looks drawn from direct observation and articulated with a sensitivity to how blowing sand and an obstreperous sun makes you feel. And it’s in these subtle touches that the Lure of Paris argues that Tanner may very well be one of the most distinguished artists of his generation. Period.

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