WERE it not for Henry Ossawa Tanner's voyage to France in 1891, these two beautiful paintings would probably never have been conceived and executed. Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and had readily assimilated this demanding teacher's strongly modeled, precise, realistic style. But arriving in Paris, the young artist found that Impressionism and Symbolism had changed the art scene since Eakins had attended the 'Ecole des Beaux Arts years earlier. Also , Tanner was a deeply religious man whose father was a minister and a Methodist bishop. Puritan America had never favored religious subjects in painting, but that genre was still popular in Europe. Later, he was to write, ``My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting . . . but at the same time give the human touch `which makes the whole world kin' and which ever remains the same. While giving truth of detail not to lose sight of more important matter, by this I mean that of color and design should be as carefully thought out as if the subject had only these qualities. To me it seems no handicap to have a subject of nobility worthy of one 's best continued effort. There is but one thing more important than these qualities and that is to try to convey to your public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to you, which is the primary cause of their choice.''
Tanner eagerly seized the opportunity to express his devout nature, and his work was quickly rewarded by exhibition in the prestigious yearly Paris Salons, often winning honors. An ``Annunciation'' demonstrates his turning point: Mary is solidly delineated in a meticulously detailed, archeologically correct, Near Eastern setting, while the angel appears as a blur of vivid color harmonies and luminosity foreshadowing the painter's later style. ``Abraham's Oak'' and ``Fishermen at Sea'' represent his full y developed poetry in paint with strong compositions being the only evidence remaining of Eakins' influence.
During a visit to the Holy Land, Tanner was much impressed by the old oak tree said to be the one (or its descendant) planted by Abraham in Beersheba (Gen. 21:33). The painting is an evocative moonlit nocturne in a myriad of subtle and radiant blues and greens. Only the gibbous moon and its aura on the clouds have a contrasting silvery yellow tint. It is easy to imagine the couple, who seem to be floating rather than walking, as Abraham and Sarah.
``Fishermen at Sea'' also has blues and greens predominant. But whereas ``Abraham's Oak'' is a painting of immense serenity, the energy and power of the tumultuous water are almost as overwhelming to the viewer as they are to the frail open boat. No doubt Tanner saw scenes like this at the Sea of Galilee, which is known for its sudden storms. If one looks closely at the base of the mast, there are two figures, one bending toward the other. It calls to mind the New Testament passage, ``there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves'' and the sleeping Jesus was awakened by his terrified disciples to calm the waters.
Whether this reading is what Tanner intended is a matter of conjecture, as the picture is a recently discovered one. Another painting, ``Salome,'' had been stretched over it and it was not until that painting was removed for conservation that the handsome work now titled ``Fishermen at Sea'' was revealed.
Interestingly, Tanner's artistic career parallels that of another Philadelphian who became a member of the Impressionists' group in Paris, Mary Cassatt. Although her wealthy, worldly family background did not resemble Tanner's -- his mother (a teacher and educator) was freed from slavery via the underground railroad as a child -- both Tanner and Cassatt early recognized art as their life's passion. Both encountered initial parental disapproval -- she on the grounds of propriety, he, on economics -- whi ch they overcame to receive loving encouragement. Both left the conservative Philadelphia atmosphere to further their studies in Paris, where each achieved an individual style and public recognition. Neither returned to the US save on rare visits. Cassatt found on her sole trip home that she was only an item for the society columns of the Philadelphia newspapers, while Tanner realized that his race made him unwelcome at an awards dinner of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts even as his painting, ``Ch rist and Nicodemus on a Rooftop,'' was being honored by his alma mater's Lippincott Prize.
Although both considered themselves Americans in identity, each returned to paint in Paris, where they were assured of appreciation of their talent and the freedom to explore their art in a congenial atmosphere.