The Million Masks of God

Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Art of Sympathy

Nathan Beacom
Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His writing can be found in Plough Quarterly, Civil Eats, The New Atlantis, and elsewhere.

Crucified on his own easel, Henry Tanner lay on the pavement on a cool Philadelphia evening. A clique of students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had tied the young painter, their only black peer, to his equipment and thrown him in the street. We know of this incident only from the perspective of its perpetrator – a decent etcher but reproachable person – Joseph Pennell. Tanner never mentioned it. His response to the sins of racism in his country tended more toward disappointment and heartbreak than anger, but there is no doubt that the injustice, meanness, condescension, and abuse with which he was treated affected and hurt him very deeply.

In consequence, he spent much of his adult life in Paris, where society, including his community of American expats, was more welcoming. As Tanner grew in renown, the country that birthed him came to embrace him, with the top museums and collectors clamoring for his work and the papers showering praise upon his artistry. Today, though, most Americans have forgotten him. That’s a shame. Tanner’s art is a uniquely American affirmation of what is supposed to be the American creed: the equal dignity of all people.

What struck Tanner most deeply about racism (he told a friend that a brief encounter on the street would nag at him for weeks) was the conflict it presented with his certainty that, like anyone else, he was a son of God. Race hatred (as he called it) was not just a personal attack, but an affront to divine justice. In a quiet way, his art was subverting the impulse to dehumanize by proclaiming in paint the dignity of the human person.

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