“Still-Life with Fruit” (circa 1910) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

 

MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY has a deep inventory of paintings by African American artists active primarily in the 20th century. Over the past few years, the gallery has showcased a selection at The Art Show, focusing on black male artists. Organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and staged at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side (Feb. 28-March 3), the show emphasizes “intimately-scaled and thoughtfully curated” gallery presentations. The experience is generally more buttoned up, but less-hectic compared with other New York City fine art fairs.

In 2016, Michael Rosenfeld exhibited portraits, cityscapes, and abstractions by Beauford Delaney at The Art Show. “Amongst the Chagalls and Noguchis and the Légers, this is where Delaney belongs, and we are consistently seeing that with museum acquisitions,” gallery director halley k harrisburg told Artsy at the time.

“Everyone from the MoMA to the Wadsworth Atheneum to the Greenville County Museum of Art to the DIA have included his works, so we’re seeing his work being displayed within the context of great American art and felt that such a venue, where you will hopefully see the best of the best, he deserved to be.”

The gallery has continued to curate a series of solo exhibitions in subsequent years—Norman Lewis in 2017 and William T. Williams in 2018. This year, works by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) are displayed in the gallery’s booth—a dramatic still life, landscapes, and significant examples of his religious paintings. The artist worked in an expressive style distinguished by the way he used light to illuminate and add perspective to his subjects and scenes.

 


Installation view of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) at The Art Show 2019, Park Avenue Armory, New York City. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 

TANNER IS CONSIDERED the first African American artist to achieve an international reputation and critical acclaim. The exhibition at The Art Show features 10 paintings and two drawings (priced from $60,000 to $1.5 million), and four etchings (about $6,000). All of the works by Tanner are for sale and from the gallery’s inventory, with one exception. Tanner’s “Two Disciples at the Tomb” is on consignment from a private collector. The circa 1924 painting has been the subject of scholarly attention recently.

Studying Tanner’s papers at the Archives of American Art, Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware, discovered new information connecting two paintings by the artist. He wrote about his findings for the archives in November.

His focus was on an undated photograph of Tanner standing palette in hand before an easel that holds a painting of Judas. The disciple who betrayed Jesus is shown kneeling before an open doorway in the painting. According to Richmond-Moll, “The painting, which likely dates from the early 1920s, has been thought to have survived only in the form of this single archival image.”

Richmond-Moll realized the photograph had been printed in reverse, which consequently flipped the orientation of the composition within the painting pictured on the easel. Further research and findings led him to consider that “Two Disciples at the Tomb” might be associated with the painting in the photograph. With permission from the owner, Michael Rosenfeld provided Richmond-Moll access to the painting.

The scholar concluded “Two Disciples at the Tomb” is painted atop the earlier painting of Judas shown in the undated photo. Using raking light to examine the canvas, “several ghost-like forms under the surface of the picture come into view.”

The scholar concluded “Two Disciples at the Tomb” is painted atop the earlier painting of Judas shown in the undated photo. Using raking light to examine the canvas, “several ghost-like forms under the surface of the picture come into view.” The trace images mirror the visual elements of the earlier work.

The gallery invited the Richmond-Moll to share his discovery at The Art Show. The scholar spoke about the Tanner painting and his research at the gallery’s booth on Wednesday.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Two Disciples at the Tomb,” circa 1924 (oil on canvas on board, 51 1/2 x 43 1/4 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 

OVER THE COURSE of four decades, Tanner painted a series of Biblically themed paintings. The spiritual focus reflected the artist’s upbringing (he was the child of a minister who became a bishop in the AME Church).

“He was the most talented religious painter of his generation, at a time religious painting was so popular every art museum needed one,” Anna Marley, curator of historical American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), told WHYY public radio in Philadelphia in 2012. A major traveling survey of Tanner’s work was on view at PAFA at the time.

“To be that leader is something we’ve lost in the 20th century, because of our tendency to see religious art as traditional, and dismiss it. Tanner made religious art modern. That is one of his great contributions.”

In addition to “Two Disciples at the Tomb,” Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is exhibiting Tanner’s “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1920-24) and “Mary Washing the Feet of Christ” (1910). These paintings also depict religious subjects.

Produced circa 1920-24, “Sodom and Gomorrah” was once in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“That painting is equal to the ‘Two Disciples at the Tomb’ in terms of its scale, complexity, scope. It’s another real masterpiece, a painting that was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1925 and then deaccessioned in 1950s,” harrisburg told Culture Type. “I don’t think anyone can deny its historical significance. Great scholars—everyone from Du Bois to artists like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis—all talked about the importance of this painting and what it meant to them to be able to go to the Metropolitan Museum and see this masterpiece hanging.”

“I don’t think anyone can deny its historical significance. Great scholars—everyone from Du Bois to artists like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis—all talked about the importance of this painting and what it meant to them to be able to go to the Metropolitan Museum and see this masterpiece hanging.” — halley k harrisburg

Harrisburg said she is not certain of the circumstances and that no one has a clear understanding about why the Met sold the painting. Describing it as floating around in private hands for decades, she said the gallery eventually acquired “Sodom and Gomorrah” and has owned it for some time. The gallery is making it available for sale for the first time at The Art Show.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Sodom and Gomorrah,” circa 1920-24 (oil on canvas, 41 1/2 x 36 1/2 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 

BORN IN PITTSBURGH and raised mostly in Philadelphia (the family moved a few times as his father took on new ministerial appointments), Tanner attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1879-1885. In 1891, he traveled to Europe, studying at Académie Julian in Paris. He returned to Philadelphia in 1892 and, during this period, painted “The Banjo Lesson” (1893) and “The Thankful Poor” (1894), two of his best-known genre scenes featuring black subjects. After two years, he decided to leave the United States for Paris. This time for good. He determined American racism would hamper his opportunities and sought creative agency abroad.

According to The New York Times, “From 1896 on, his paintings were regularly accepted into the Paris salons, awarded prizes and praised by critics. Success in France translated to the United States, where his works were shown in major cities from New York to San Francisco and were displayed in international art expositions like the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Pan-American in Buffalo.”

Michael Rosenfeld’s family began collecting Tanner long before his eponymous gallery opened in 1989. Tanner “has been a passion” of the dealer since he was a child. His grandfather was the first in the family to acquire works by the African American artist, between the 1940s and 60s.

Michael Rosenfeld’s family began collecting Tanner long before his eponymous gallery opened in 1989, harrisburg, who is married to Rosenfeld, said. Tanner “has been a passion” of the dealer since he was a child. His grandfather was the first in the family to acquire works by the African American artist, between the 1940s and 60s. A merchant, he sought out Tanner’s works during his travels. Harrisburg said the artist’s palette and landscape “spoke to him.”

During the 30 years the gallery has been in operation, they have actively bought and sold the work of Tanner. “We have supported the work when it has come up at auction,” she said. “But ideally, like most, we like to buy it privately and we also work very closely with members of [Tanner’s] family.”

Harrisburg said there has been interest from potential buyers in all of the works, from both private collectors and large and small institutions across the country. She said, “It was very rewarding at the preview opening (Wednesday) to see so many museum professionals admiring the work and feeling grateful that Tanner was back in the spotlight in such a significant way.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Still-Life with Fruit,” circa 1910 (oil on canvas, 15 x 22 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 

BOOKSHELF
“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” was published to document the 2012 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, “a complex overview of the life and career of the pioneering African American artist Henry O. Tanner (1859–1937).” “Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner” accompanies an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. “Henry Ossawa Tanner” focuses on the artist’s life and work. For children, “Henry Ossawa Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True” tells the story of how the artist became internationally recognized when the concept of an acclaimed black artist was unheard of.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Coastal Landscape, France,” 1912 (oil on wood panel, 9 1/4 x 13 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Christ Walking on the Waters,” circa 1910 (etching on paper, 7 7/8 x 9 1/8 inches) signed | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Edge of the Forest (Bois d’Amour),” circa 1893 (oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 


HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859–1937), “Entrance to the Customs House in Tangier,” circa 1908 (oil on panel, 22 1/2 x 24 inches) signed. | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, N.Y.

 

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